Ag’s legal expenses top $2.4M for year

Published 8:09 pm Wednesday, March 13, 2013

An ongoing lawsuit challenging Mississippi’s foster care system has cost the state at least $4.4 million in legal expenses and fees since 2008.

Expenses continue to rise as the plaintiffs and the state work toward a telephone status conference scheduled for April 25 with U.S. District Judge Tom S. Lee. The price tag this year is $1.35 million.

The attorney general annually gives lawmakers an itemized list covering everything from fees for expert witnesses to judgments and settlements of legal fights involving the state and its political subdivisions. Such payments have been authorized by the Legislature for a dozen years or more.

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Legislative leaders say they try to budget money each year in anticipation of judgments against the state but generally wait for what the attorney general brings them.

Senate Bill 2904 has passed the Senate and is before the House Appropriations Committee. The bill must be considered by the full House by March 19.

The bill sets aside about $9.12 million in what it calls “additional appropriations.” Not everything in the bill is deficit, such as a total of $2.4 million for legal matters.

The attorney general’s request will increase, says Jan Schaefer, the spokeswoman for Attorney General Jim Hood.

“We have another $388,750 that will need to be added to our deficit request. These additions are the result of nine wrongful incarceration cases that have settled,” Schaefer said.

That would bring the total tab to more than $2.8 million.

The foster care case is taking up nearly half of the total amount — $1.35 million.

The foster care lawsuit known as Olivia Y. v. Barbour was filed in 2004 by a New York-based group, Children’s Rights, on behalf of minors that it said were being mistreated in Mississippi’s foster care system.

Mississippi officials have agreed to a revised settlement in the lawsuit.

The new agreement is meant to push the state to fulfill promises it made when it first settled the suit in 2008, adding a sixth year on what was originally expected to be a five-year process. That gives the state a total of three more years to meet the goals.

The other major legal expense in Senate Bill 2904 is $257,041 for a lawsuit involving the privately run juvenile prison in Walnut Grove that had been hounded by allegations of physical and sexual abuse.

A federal judge in 2012 signed off on settlement reached by the state and civil rights advocates.

Walnut Grove opened in 2001 in Leake County for inmates ages 13-22 who were minors convicted as adults. It was run by the private prison firm Cornell Companies Inc. until Cornell was acquired by the GEO Group Inc.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state over conditions at the facility in 2010. The suit claimed guards smuggled drugs to inmates, had sex with some of them and denied others medical treatment and basic educational services.  

The sides reached a settlement that would require youth to be moved to a facility governed by juvenile justice standards.

Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps planned to send the 17-and-younger inmates to Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County.

Another $151,000 judgment involved the wrongful incarceration case of Jimmie Bass, a Bolivar County man convicted in 1988 for aggravated assault and armed robbery. Bass was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

The victim told police she could identify her attackers and was presented with three different lineups which included Bass, but she never identified him, according to court records. Another witness, who claimed to have seen Bass running from the crime scene, was discredited.

Bass was released from prison in 2006.