The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against a judge in Georgia and Judicial Correction Services (JCS), claiming the private company's debt collection practices led to poor people being jailed because they couldn't pay.
The case, Thompson v. DeKalb County, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, was brought on behalf of Kevin Thompson, a black teenager in DeKalb County, Ga. Thompson allegedly was jailed because he couldn't afford to pay court fines and probation company fees stemming from a traffic ticket.
The lawsuit names DeKalb County, Chief Judge Nelly Withers of the DeKalb County Recorders Court and JCS as defendants, charging they teamed up to engage in a coercive collection scheme focusing on revenue generation at the expense of protecting poor people's rights. Rogers & Hardin LLP, the ACLU of Georgia and Southern Center for Human Rights are co-counsel.
Thompson was jailed five days because he could not pay $838 in fines and fees to DeKalb County and JCS, despite the fact that he tried his best to make payments, the ACLU claims.
"Being poor is not a crime. Yet across the county, the freedom of too many people unfairly rests on their ability to pay traffic fines and fees they cannot afford," said Nusrat Choudhury, an attorney with the ACLUs Racial Justice Program. "We seek to dismantle this two-tiered system of justice that punishes the poorest among us, disproportionately people of color, more harshly than those with means.
JCS officials could not be immediately reached for comment concerning the ACLU lawsuit. JCS has faced multiple lawsuits over similar issues.
In Shelby County, Ala., a judge in 2012 shut down what he called a "debtors prison" operated by a local court and JCS. The judge called the case a judicially sanctioned extortion racket," court records indicate. The judge found evidence that the city of Harpersville, Ala. would hand over cases involving late court-imposed fines to JCS and that many defendants later were locked up, some on bogus failure-to-appear complaints, resulting in more charges that led to more fines, court costs - and additional debt, the judge wrote.The judge ordered that the city must give defendants a minimum of 30 days to pay initial fines and fees and that he must approve all orders to jail defendants.
According to the ACLU, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than 30 years ago that locking people up merely because they cannot afford to pay court fines is contrary to U.S. values of fairness and equality embedded in the 14th Amendment of Constitution. The court made clear that judges cannot jail someone for failure to pay without first considering their ability to pay, efforts to acquire money and alternatives to incarceration.