By engaging elected officials, faith-based leaders, media, community activists, educators, childcare providers, healthcare professionals and other advocacy partners, the Mississippi Center for Justice provides the legal perspective to policy initiatives that improve the lives of Mississippians.
With offices in Jackson, Biloxi and Indianola, the Center seeks systemic solutions that promote educational opportunity, protect the rights of consumers, secure access to healthcare, ensure equity in disaster recovery and put affordable housing within the reach of all Mississippians. Please visit the individual areas of work to learn more.
Access to affordable, quality healthcare is critical to a state’s overall health, education and economic status. Better health outcomes are directly related to insurance coverage that prevents developmental problems in children, increases workforce productivity, reduces use of emergency room services and decreases the cost of publicly-funded programs.
Currently, approximately 500,000 Mississippians are without health insurance coverage, and approximately 100,000 of them are children. Poor health in childhood leads to poor health later in life.
In coalition with other advocates, Mississippi Center for Justice is working to remove barriers that prevent Mississippians and their children from getting the vital care they need to lead healthy and productive lives. The Center is working to ensure that Mississippi fully implement the Affordable Care Act and fight against the discriminatory practices that make it harder for people living with HIV/AIDS to obtain affordable housing, maintain employment and protect their right to privacy. The Center is also working to bridge the gap in access to healthcare for communities of color who suffer from high rates of death from treatable diseases like diabetes.
Mississippi’s legacy of poverty is prevalent throughout the state, particularly in communities of color. Predatory lenders – including payday lenders, check cashers, title loans companies, and others – find an environment ripe for preying on the working families and the elderly who find it financially difficult to pay for basic necessities. The impact of predatory lending is compounded by a policy environment that offers few consumer protections. Repeatedly, the fabric of low-income communities of color are torn apart because, while they own fewer homes in Mississippi, theirs are twice as likely to be foreclosed due to disparities of income and the lack of an inclusive financial infrastructure that allows for fair and competitive loan products.
Educational attainment does help change this landscape. Mississippians with college degrees are less likely to experience financial hardship than Mississippians who only have a high school diploma. However, there has also been a spike in problematic student loan debt stemming from expensive for profit colleges in Mississippi. In Mississippi, the fees associated with being poor adversely affect single mothers and communities of color, keeping them entrenched in a cycle of debt that has a negative effect on their children’s education, health and overall wellbeing. The need for reform has never been greater.
If you are in the market for a loan product and would like to make an informed decision, you can visit the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website.
Disasters, both natural and manmade, affect the physical health of a community, interrupt the education of its children and wipe away the precious, yet limited, resources some have worked so hard to attain. They often reveal systemic, engrained disparities that renew the debate about issues affecting truly equitable recovery efforts.
In the wake of disasters, emergency needs such as food and clothing are often quickly addressed. But what about the legal needs to help ensure that low- and moderate-income families have equal access to recovery resources intended to sustain neighborhoods and rebuild communities?
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi Center for Justice leveraged the unprecedented influx of pro bono legal assistance to help open doors for low and moderate income families.
The Center also learned lessons from that recovery effort and applied them as it established a regional legal response to BP’s Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig explosion. From providing direct legal services to influencing the policy decisions that create the framework for future disaster recovery regulations, the Center and its allies are committed to protecting access to justice for everyone impacted by disasters in the region.
The economic future of a state rests on the quality of the education of its citizens. A good education can provide better access to healthcare, improve opportunities for financial stability and create more options for safe and affordable housing. Sadly, lack of access to a quality education is far too common for Mississippi’s children. Every year, Mississippi ranks at or near the bottom for student achievement. These statistics become even more daunting within communities of color and for students with disabilities. These students are more likely to face disciplinary actions, including suspensions or expulsions, which makes them more likely to drop out of school.
Students in Mississippi have a right to fair and safe schools that foster learning and a sense of community, which inspires growth and gives them the tools they need to succeed. The Center is working to ensure that children across the state have access to a quality education to help turn the tide of the education system and work toward improved proficiency scores, better graduation rates for minority and disabled students and adequate funding for all districts.
The Center supports every student’s right to a good education and that means fighting unjust suspensions and expulsions and keeping students in the classroom where they belong. More than just a law firm, the Center also works with parent advocates to help others know that they have the right to challenge their child’s suspension or expulsion.
The need for safe, decent, affordable housing across the state of Mississippi is great. Lack of housing options drive gaps in education, health and economic opportunities, particularly for low-income and African-American Mississippians. In fact, the state’s average home value is 50 percent lower than the national average, making it second lowest in the country.
In African American communities, the statistics are even more grim – many more African Americans rent, rather than own. Additionally, almost 32 percent of African American-occupied rental units spend more than half of their income on rent, and on facilities that are older and often overcrowded.
The Center knows that one of the best ways to strengthen communities is by investing in quality housing that is affordable to people at all income levels. The Center is working to address housing gaps in the areas of affordable housing, fair housing and public housing, as well as promoting housing policy as part of its sustainable community initiatives.
In addition to working to reverse the ongoing effects that lack of housing opportunities has created throughout in Mississippi, the Center is diligently pursuing improved housing opportunities as part of its ongoing disaster recovery programs and promote environmental justice in areas where ill-thought out projects threaten to bring pollution and other untold hazards to the area.
The George Riley Impact Litigation Initiative is a ten-year initiative to provide litigation and public policy advocacy in areas related to racial and economic justice, including voting rights, housing, consumer protection, and educational access. In 2017, MCJ and Rob McDuff jointly launched the George Riley Impact Litigation Initiative, which is named in honor of longtime MCJ board member the late George Riley.
Mississippi consists of many communities that draw and depend on a growing immigrant population. It is one of the thirteen states with the highest proportion of undocumented immigrants. The Pew Research Center found in 2016 that 35%—some 20,000 of Mississippi’s nearly 60,000 immigrants—reside in the state without documentation.
Mississippi immigrants face challenges unique to the rural south. As described in a disturbing Topic Magazine article, one recently retired immigration judge who presides over Mississippi cases boasts an unrivaled 100% asylum denial rate.
ICE agents execute unlawful raids and enforcement actions throughout the state by exercising excessive force and stripping individuals of their rights. A recently enacted state law prohibits local jurisdictions from hindering federal immigration enforcement targeting undocumented immigrants in local and state jails.
Police departments conduct routine license checks and immigration checkpoints on roads between rural immigrant communities and their workplaces and places of worship.
In schools, students often receive little or no English language learning support and are instead often coupled with other immigrant students to serve as each other’s translators.
Parents without work authorization lack support from school districts on filing taxes or completing the FAFSA, leaving their U.S. citizen children without the tools to seek higher education. Upon graduation from high school, Mississippi’s undocumented and DACA-mented youth are refused admission to community colleges throughout the state. Community colleges, in an even more brazenly anti-immigrant policy, refuse in-state tuition rates to U.S. citizen children of undocumented parents.
Compounding all of the above, there is very little legal help available for immigrants in Mississippi and scant integration of services for the immigrant population.
On August 7, 2019, 650 federal agents raided six Mississippi communities, arresting 680 of our friends and neighbors in Morton, Canton, Carthage, Pelahatchie, Bay Springs, and Walnut Grove. Mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers were loaded onto buses in plastic handcuffs while children, with their new backpacks and school supplies, returned from their first day of school, only to find their loved ones gone. These raids irreversibly harmed families, schools, communities, and our state. Read more about our response here.
In 2019, we worked with many of you to address barriers to public benefits which worsened hunger and poor health in our state. Together, we secured major successes, including (1) lifting a lifetime ban on SNAP and TANF eligibility that affected as many as 90,000 Mississippians with drug-related felony convictions; (2) convening over 250 community members and partners at regional meetings where we explored policy and programmatic opportunities to build healthier and more food secure futures for all Mississippians; and (3) fighting back against five federal attacks targeting vital food and health resources for low-wealth families and communities of color.
In 2020, MCJ’s Public Benefits Campaign will continue to provide legal and policy advocacy that catalyzes, creates, and sustains healthy and equitable communities. We will focus our efforts in the following areas: