- Associated Press - Thursday, January 29, 2015

ATLANTA (AP) - A metro Atlanta county unfairly targets the poor by throwing them in jail for failure to pay court fines without considering ability to pay or alternatives to incarceration, according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday.

The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Kevin Thompson, a DeKalb County man who was jailed after he was unable to pay more than $800 in fines and fees stemming from a traffic ticket within 30 days of sentencing.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than three decades ago that it is a violation of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to lock people up for failure to pay court fines without considering ability to pay, efforts to get money and alternatives to incarceration, said Nusrat Choudhury, lead attorney on the case for the ACLU.

“Being poor isn’t a crime,” she said. “What’s happening in DeKalb County is a top-down, debt collection scheme using a for-profit company that’s violating that core principle and, in the process, also depriving people of their right to counsel.”

County spokesman Burke Brennan said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation. A representative for Judicial Correction Services Inc., the company hired by the county to collect fines which is also named in the lawsuit, could not be reached by phone and didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.



Thompson, 19, was stopped by a police officer in July and was arrested, charged with driving with a suspended license and jailed for a night. He pleaded guilty in October and the judge ordered him to pay an $810 fine within 30 days and instructed him to sign up with Judicial Correction Services, or JCS, for the payment of his fine, the lawsuit says. He was assigned a JCS probation officer and instructed to report weekly.

After he brought small sums to several meetings, the officer served him with a petition to revoke his probation when he showed up to a meeting without any money, the lawsuit says.

Neither the probation officer nor the judge asked about his efforts to get money, his resources or his job prospects, and neither clearly explained to him that he had the right to a court-appointed attorney and that he might be eligible for a fee waiver for such an attorney, the lawsuit says. He was sentenced to serve nine days in jail.

Thompson was released after five days, but “suffered humiliation, anxiety, stress, emotional distress, and other irreparable injury from being handcuffed and taken to jail in front of his mother, forcibly separated from his mother and family, and detained for five days in unsanitary and cold jail conditions without enough food to eat,” the lawsuit says.

Local governments in 13 states work with for-profit probation companies to collect debts, Choudhury said. The ACLU singled out DeKalb County because it has collected more revenue than any other municipality in Georgia using these methods, she said.

Contracts between the county and JCS allows the company to collect a monthly fee from probationers except from those determined by the court to be indigent, she added. That means it’s not in the interest of JCS for its officers to try to determine whether a probationer has the means to pay.

The lawsuit asks for jury trial and seeks punitive and compensatory damages, as well as attorney fees.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide