For-Profit Companies Are Helping to Put People In Jail for Being Poor. I Should Know, I Was One of Them.

In December, I was jailed for five days simply because I couldn't afford to pay $838 in traffic fines and fees to DeKalb County and a private probation company called Judicial Correction Services, Inc.

It sounds unbelievable, but that's exactly what happened.

Last summer, I got a traffic ticket just after I pulled my car out of the driveway of my home in Decatur, Georgia. I had no idea that this ticket would eventually land me in the DeKalb County Jail for being poor.

That day, I also didn't know that my driver's license had been suspended. I later learned that it had been suspended because I forgot to submit a form to the Georgia Department of Driver Services after resolving charges related to a minor traffic violation (I missed a "no left turn" sign and appeared late to my court hearing).

Kevin and his dad.

In October, the DeKalb County Recorders Court ordered me to pay $810 in fines related to the ticket. When I told the judge that I could not afford to pay $810 that day, she put me on "probation" with Judicial Correction Services (JCS) and told me that I had 30 days to pay. Like other people who couldn't afford to pay fines on sentencing day, I was on "pay-only" probation. My driver's license was also suspended for another six months.

I did everything I could to pay my court fines and the fees JCS charged me for "probation." Because my license was suspended, I could no longer earn money through paid tow truck driving training, which I had done before. I did odd jobs for an auto shop while looking for work and borrowed money from my mom, sister, and grandmother to pay what I could.

But it wasn't enough.

When my 30 days were almost up, I went to see my JCS officer. She charged me with violating probation for failure to pay court fines and JCS fees. She also failed to tell me that I had a right to request a court-appointed lawyer at my probation revocation hearing. Instead, she said I would have to pay $150 for a public defender, even though the fee is $50 and can be waived for poor people. I didn't have the money to pay, so I didn't request a lawyer.

I dressed in slacks and a dress shirt that I borrowed from my dad, since I didn't have my own, and I went to court with my mother for my probation revocation hearing. I hoped the judge might give me an extension of time to pay or community service because I was trying my best to pay. Instead, the judge immediately asked to hear from the JCS officer next to her, who recommended sentencing me to 10 days in jail if I couldn't pay my balance that day. I begged the judge to help me get a permit so that I could drive for work and to give me some more time to pay. Instead she sentenced me to nine days in jail.

I was stunned. I couldn't believe what happened.

All of a sudden, I realized that my mom was going to see me put in handcuffs and taken to jail. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. I asked the judge if I could hug my mom. The judge said no. As I was handcuffed and taken to a cage behind the courtroom, I began to cry.

I spent five days in the DeKalb County Jail where it was cold and dirty, and I didn't get enough food. I felt ashamed, scared, and sad during those five days. It hurt to be separated from my family. And even after I was released, I felt scared that police might arrest me and jail me again for no good reason. After all DeKalb County and JCS essentially jailed me for being poor.

What happened to me – and others like me who try their best to pay fines and fees but fall short – is unfair and wrong, but I am standing up for my rights. The Constitution prohibits local governments and for-profit companies from doing what they did to me. I hope this lawsuit will help prevent other people from being jailed just because they are poor.

Kevin Thomson is a plaintiff in Thompson v. DeKalb County.

See more of Kevin's story here.

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Anonymous

Someone I know of in Southern California was jailed for an entire year solely because of inability to pay a traffic ticket. She had no prior "offenses", just the ticket, but she is poor. They jailed her until she could pay. It was her friends who raised the money. I thought it was illegal to jail people for being poor ,in this country. You know, no debtors prison? America is no longer recognizable to me in some very fundamental ways. I thought we'd be farther along by now, not regressing. This scares me and makes me wonder if my life of activism has been a complete waste of time.

Heidi

We are at the mercy of a capatialist, opportunistic, greed driven industry in this nation. There is NO balance between liberty and capitalism at all. The liberties are slowly being whittled away, i.e. Citizens United. We are an Oligarchy.

Anonymous

Do you know in which county? Could you provide more information?

zeneka

I'm sorry this happened to you Kevin and I'm very proud that you're taking legal action against these people. Enough is enough with this brutal treatment of our people. We please keep fighting this...take it as far as you need to. May God bless you all in this fight.

Beth M.

I'm glad that Kevin has a loving, supportive family and< /strong> the guts and strength to go through with a suit. And that he has the help of the ACLU, of course!

Can't help but wonder how many people cannot pay their bills because they can't earn money without a driver's license, aren't told that they have a right to a lawyer, or because they are in debtor's prison. Many of them surely don't have the strength and support that Kevin has. Shouldn't this be called "cruel and unusual punishment"?

Ann Williamson

Right here. He got 9 days, I got 42 days for a flat tire. Lost a ten year career and my insurance and now I can't pay to have a lesion treated that was almost gone prior to being jailed. At least he gets to live.

Anonymous

Totally agree with 1/29/15 statement: "America is no longer recognizable to me in some very fundamental ways. I thought we'd be farther along by now, not regressing." The cause behind it gets more interesting and scarier by the moment, and is directly traced to perverse masochism and racism practiced by an elite set of all male dominated political body, essentially propping each other up to call all the shots: Targets are anyone that does not support their abusive agenda. Hence the "war on women" for disagreeing with their agendas.

Anonymous

You're lucky you've only been given 5 days. In Mississippi, I have a bench warrant which carries 6 months if they catch me, for driving without insurance. They regularly set up road blocks at times such as Memorial Day, Labor Day, Independence Day, and several other holidays when they know people will be traveling to visit family. They only stop black people at many of these road blocks waving white people through as if they know them and they know all their information is in order. The fines totaled between 650 and 700. I had 800 on me when I was pulled over but I had to pay nearly 600 of that to bond out of jail and to get my vehicle out of impound. The money was going to be used to find an apartment. Upon my court date, I told the judge that I couldn't pay. He gave me another court date. I used the last of my money to visit my cousin because there were temp jobs in his area and hopefully I could make enough to pay the fines. I missed my court date because I was out of the state. The bond company started calling and harassing my uncle. My uncle didn't bond me out of jail. I bonded myself out. I paid the bond company and signed the papers. My uncle just contacted them on my behalf. They threatened my uncle, who was just recovering from a collapsed lung, with jail if he didn't tell them where I was. I hadn't made enough to pay my fines but I left and returned to Mississippi so they'd stop harassing my uncle. I went the courthouse to see if I could make payment arrangements and they threw me in jail because I didn't have the full amount. When I went to court 4 days later, they released me but told me that if I didn't pay them within a month, a warrant for my arrest would be issued and I would have to spend 6 months in jail. School started the next month. I was homeless for the first month of my senior year in school because of that. I managed to run into a friend who had just moved to the town in which my school was in and they let me pay them to sleep on their couch. I avoided every road block after that day until I graduated. After I graduated, I left Mississippi. Almost my whole family lives there but I can't really visit them because if they catch me, I'll have to do 6 months in jail and lose everything that I've worked for. My mother and father are sick. My sister has been sick. On the day that they arrested me at the roadblock, they had other people pulled over but they lived in the area and were allowed to have family come get them. Because I lived an hour away but my uncle lived 10 minutes away, they said they'd wait the 10 minutes until my uncle came. He was 2 minutes away when they said they weren't going to wait. My truck was towed. He arrived at the station at the same time as we did but they decided since I was already cuffed and we had already made it there, I had to be processed (almost 10 hours) which meant I had to bond out. If they had waited 2 minutes, I would've had the money to pay them. I could've then went to work where my cousin lived and stayed long enough to make the money to get my apartment. I wouldn't have had to sleep in my truck for a month in various parking lots hoping not to draw attention by being in any place too often. I wouldn't have a bench warrant.

treedweller

This is one reason privatization of civil justice is a terrible idea. The point of penalties is to enforce compliance. To corporations, it is better to have more offenders and reap more profit.

Anonymous

I once got a ticket to appear in traffic court, the ticket did not say what the fine was and was simply given to me by a cop who appeared at my house in the middle of the night. I appeared with $300 cash in my pocket and hoped that would be enough. Thankfully I was only fined $150 and even with the $88 court charge and $50 administrative fee it still came out to less than $300. I was lucky, but had the ticket been only a few dollars more I might have ended up in jail.

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