ACLU, DeKalb County Settle Debtor’s Prison Case
(APN) ATLANTA — The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and DeKalb County have reached a settlement in the federal lawsuit brought on behalf of Kevin Thompson, a DeKalb County teenager.
The lawsuit alleged that people were being improperly jailed who could not pay court-ordered fines in traffic cases.
As earlier reported by Atlanta Progressive News, Thompson spent five days in jail because he was too poor to pay a misdemeanor traffic ticket. His inability to pay the initial fine lead to more court fines and probation fees eventually totalling 838 dollars.
The downward spiraling situation eventually landed Thompson in what many people call modern day “debtors’ prison.”
The court agreed to policy changes to protect the rights of indigent individuals who cannot pay the fines and fees as a condition of probation for traffic and misdemeanor minor offenses. The agreement measures include:
- Adoption of a “bench card” that provides judges instructions to avoid sending people to jail because they owe court fines and are unable to pay. The card lists the legal alternatives to jail and outlines the procedure for determining someone’s ability to pay. It also instructs judges on how to protect people’s right to counsel in probation revocation proceedings.
- Training and guidance to Recorder’s Court personnel involved in misdemeanor probation on probationers’ right to counsel in revocation proceedings and right to an indigency hearing before jailing for failure to pay fines and fees.
- Revision of forms to let people charged with probation violations know of their right to court-appointed counsel in probation revocation proceedings, and their right to request a waiver of any public defender fees they cannot afford.
“Being poor is not a crime, and these measures will help ensure that people’s freedom will not rest on their ability to pay traffic fines and fees they cannot afford. These measures also serve as a model for courts across Georgia and in other states to help ensure that our poorest and richest citizens are treated equally and fairly,” Nusrat Choudhury, an attorney for the ACLU, said in a press release.
I witnessed this kind of thing in a Decatur city traffic court ( in DeKalb County) in 2014, when I had been charged with a traffic violation. I had money to pay my fine and was shocked and horrified to see other defendants in trouble, including one woman handcuffed and in an orange jumpsuit who had already done some time because of inability to pay fines and probation, and now had to do more time. All because she could not pay. It did, indeed, constitute debtors’ prison. It is time to end this practice. It is unconstitutional.