A power outage left one county's criminal justice systems unable to share data, blocking individuals from paying bail or being released from jail.
An investigation is underway into a potential compromise of a shared electronic system among Mississippi's Hinds County Sheriff’s Department, courts and prosecutors that may have prevented individuals from making bail and returning to their families and jobs.
Sheriff Tyree Jones said two systems connected to the court and the district attorney’s office went down between Jan. 1 and Wednesday evening. Problems were discovered after a power outage when information technology staff noticed the server and system didn’t reboot like they usually do, he said.
"This is something that was totally unpreventable,” Jones said. “There were no signs that this was going to happen. It caught us all by surprise."
On Jan. 13, Jones said he wasn’t able to share much due to the ongoing investigation. He did not confirm whether the investigation was being conducted by the sheriff’s office. When asked whether hacking may have been involved, he said a cause is still being determined.
Jones said there was never a point when public safety was at risk or people were erroneously released from the jail. He said the system mostly impacted communication between offices and processes that were slowed down.
The sheriff’s office is back on track and catching up from last week, he said.
Charity Bruce, deputy director of consumer protection and public benefits at the Mississippi Center for Justice, said she spoke with a community member who said they tried to pay bail for a family member at the Hinds County jail but couldn’t because the system was down. They also weren’t able to add money to the detainee’s account, she said.
When Bruce called the sheriff’s office and the jail, she asked if there was a way for people to post bond without the electronic system.
Jones doesn’t dispute that detainees weren’t able to make bail and leave the jail while the system was down, but he knows that booking and the ability to electronically share case information, including whether a judge approved bail, were affected.
Generally, when a bail bondsman comes to pay bond for a detainee, jail staff is responsible for confirming the person was granted bond and there is paperwork documenting that, he said.
With the recent system failure, jail staff had to find another way to get that information, such as by calling the courthouse and having someone there locate a detainee’s case file, Jones said.
Harya Tarekegn, director of advocacy and policy at the Mississippi Center for Justice, said the situation raises due process concerns.
Bail is an amount of money set by a judge that a person must pay to get out of jail until their next court appearance. The goal of bail is to make sure defendants show up in court.
Whether bail is awarded and how much depends on several factors, including the alleged crime, whether a person is dangerous, community safety and their risk of fleeing.
Generally, the longer someone is in jail, the worse their outcome is, Tarekegn said. Being in jail often means a person misses work and income, and they aren’t able to see family, she said.
As a result of the Hinds County system going down, she said the Mississippi Center for Justice doesn’t know how many people missed the holidays with family or lost employment because they weren’t able to pay bail and be released.
“All of the implications of not being home are exacerbated by this,” Tarekegn said about detention.
Jones said the past week and a half showed that the sheriff’s office and courts can do some things manually.
Any needed preventative measures would be made by IT, he said. Even though the situation was unexpected, Jones said the sheriff’s office will be prepared if the system were to go offline again.
“This has been a learning experience,” Jones said.