ATLANTA — Kevin Thompson didn’t have the cash on hand to immediately pay a stiff fine last year for a driving offense.
Like thousands of other Georgians, the 19-year-old was placed on misdemeanor probation to give him time to come up with the money. But a DeKalb County judge only allowed him 30 days to pay $838 in fines and fees. That proved to be an impossible sum for Thompson to quickly hand over, since he had lost his job as a tow truck driver after his driver’s license was suspended.
Thompson’s failure to pay as ordered led a judge to revoke his probation and send him to jail. Now, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging that the DeKalb County Recorders Court violated Thompson’s rights by locking him up without determining if he was too poor to pay the fine in the first place.
Under a 1983 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, an offender’s probation cannot be revoked for failure to pay a fine if that offender is poor and truly does not have the means to pay.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Atlanta, names DeKalb County, the chief judge at DeKalb County Recorders Court and the probation company Judicial Correction Services, or JCS, as defendants.
The ACLU said it has been investigating abuses by for-profit probation companies and the courts that use the companies throughout Georgia and Mississippi. The lawsuit grew out of that investigation, which found that DeKalb County was among the worst abusers, said Nusrat J. Choudhury, one of the ACLU attorneys who is representing Thompson.
The ACLU alleges that the abuses touch many low-income people in DeKalb, because the courts that handle misdemeanors are primarily focused on collecting money.
“The county and JCS were focusing on generating revenue from people too poor to pay on sentencing day without protecting poor people’s rights,” Choudhury said.
The lawsuit alleges that the court failed to properly inform Thompson about his right to be represented by an attorney in addition to failing to assess whether or not he was indigent.
DeKalb County officials declined to comment on the lawsuit on Thursday. However, a spokesman for the county said Integrity Supervision Services has now replaced JCS as the court’s misdemeanor probation company.
Robert McMichael, the CEO of Judicial Correction Services, said he could not comment on the specific allegations in the lawsuit.
“The years I have been with JCS, we worked very hard to be fair and equitable to all the people we dealt with and I have done that throughout my entire career,” said McMichael, who is retiring from the company as of Friday.
Thompson said it was “horrible” to hear the judge order him to jail and have his mother watch as he was handcuffed and taken out of the courtroom.
“I am pretty sure there was something else they could have done other than lock me up,” said Thompson, in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was sentenced to nine days in jail but ultimately released after five days behind bars.
The ACLU lawsuit comes at a time when Georgia is considering an overhaul of its misdemeanor probation system, including new requirements for handling indigent people on probation.
Misdemeanor probation is used in Georgia to handle the sentencing requirements of some serious offenses, including DUIs and shoplifting. Unlike most other states, Georgia authorizes local courts to hire private companies to handle that probation supervision.
Many people in Georgia, however, are placed on probation simply because they didn’t have enough money to pay off a traffic ticket on the day they went to court. The overall cost of a ticket increases through probation because supervision fees of $35 to $40 a month are added on to the fines and other fees are imposed by the court.
Last year, Gov. Nathan Deal asked his Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, a panel of criminal justice experts, to recommend ways to improve misdemeanor supervision. Deal made the request after he vetoed a probation bill over concerns it would allow too much secrecy for probation companies.
The veto came shortly after the release of a highly critical state audit that documented widespread failures in the current probation system. Those included a lack of oversight by judges and abusive practices by probation officers, such as improper threats to seek warrants, excessive reporting requirements and questionable methods for collecting payments.
The Council on Criminal Justice Reform is close to finalizing a slate of recommendations for probation that are expected to be debated by the Georgia General Assembly. The council’s recommendations are expected to include a specific requirement that local courts determine whether probationers are too poor to pay fines, before locking them up for missing probation payments.
The council also wants probation providers to have better oversight and more transparency, which includes a proposal that companies disclose for the first time how much money they collect in supervision fees.
According to the ACLU lawsuit, Thompson scraped up what little cash he could to try to pay off the fine, borrowing $85 from relatives. The suit alleges that he told his probation officer and a judge that he could not work at his tow truck job and asked for help in getting a limited license so he could regain his income.
Thompson and his attorney said they hope the lawsuit will help change the way others like him are treated in court.
“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 Choudhury, the ACLU attorney. “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.”
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