by Hunter Dawkins, Publisher

Last Tuesday, an agenda item came to the Pass Christian Board of Aldermen concerning a budget increase in the court department.  After hearing the statements from City Attorney Malcolm Jones and the City Municipal Judge, the board unanimously approved hiring a regular public defender at the rate of $200 per case; which fulfills the statute set under Mississippi law. 

City Judge Lewie “Skip” Negrotto addressed the board, stating the Municipal Court budget needs to be increased for hiring a public defender because of a substantial increase in shoplifting cases and issue with pretrial detention.

“So far this year, the city has 55 shoplifting offenses, 11 second offenses, 2 third offense, and when you’re over a certain amount of arrests or costs, this becomes a felony,” stated Negrotto in his attempt to clarify the need for a public defender.  “The main reason for this happening is the lack of enforcement, nothing to do with the court or police department, but it has everything to do with what’s happening in the jail.”

Negrotto went on providing details by stating that Harrison County has an overcrowded jail; which is not a misdemeanor detention center even though there is a Memorandum of Understanding that cities and the county coincide with corrections.

The Harrison County corrections system will only take defendants that have a bond and the jail will hold them until the bond’s posted.  Therefore, all the shoplifters who are arrested have been released within 24 hours and do not show up to court.  Due to the city not having a public defender, no trial date could be set.

“Word got out on the street really quick, those who steal from the Gulfport Walmart, will go to jail because Gulfport hired a defender,” expressed Negrotto.  “Word has gotten out that if you go to Pass Christian, nothing will happen. I am going to suggest to get some money for court appointed attorneys, try these people and send them to jail.”

Among the court records, there was 26 shoplifting cases reported to the city of Pass Christian in 2021.  As of Thursday, July 14, there were 71 shoplifting cases reported to the Pass Christian Municipal Court.

Following the board’s unanimous approval, the Pass Christian Police Department applauded the board’s action.    

“During the past year, we’ve seen an increase in individuals who are charged with property crimes such as shoplifting and theft not showing up for court after being charged,” said Pass Christian Police Chief Daren Freeman.  “Judge Negrotto is implanting a system which should help with holding individuals accountable, will help legal representation for those who can’t afford it and provide closure to the victims affected by these crimes.  I applaud Judge Negrotto for streamlining the process.  Our business owners and victims should see a positive change sooner rather than later.”

There has been no official hire by the city of Pass Christian for a public defender.  Private sector attorney; Owen McNally, has filled the public defense in an interim role for now.