On January 29, 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit challenging debt collection practices that have resulted in the jailing of people simply because they are poor. The case was brought on behalf of Kevin Thompson, a black teenager in DeKalb County, Georgia, who was jailed because he could not afford to pay court fines and probation company fees stemming from a traffic ticket.
The ACLU charged that DeKalb County and the for-profit company Judicial Correction Services, Inc. (JCS) teamed up to engage in a coercive debt collection scheme that focused on revenue generation at the expense of protecting poor people's rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than 30 years ago that jailing people because they cannot afford to pay court fines is contrary to the American values of fairness and equality embedded in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. 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.
The lawsuit charged that Thompson's constitutional rights to an indigency hearing and to counsel were violated by DeKalb County, JCS, and the chief judge of the local court that sentenced him to jail.
These debt collection practices have had a devastating impact on people of color in the Atlanta metropolitan area. While blacks make up 54 percent of the DeKalb County population, nearly all probationers jailed by the DeKalb County Recorders Court for failure to pay are black – a pattern replicated by other Georgia courts.
Less than two months after the suit was filed, the parties reached a settlement agreement on March, 18, 2015. Under the settlement, Thompson received a monetary payment and the chief judge of the DeKalb County Recorder’s Court agreed to take measures to protect the rights of people who cannot afford to make fine and fee payments required as a condition of probation for traffic and other misdemeanor offenses. The 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.
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Thompson v. DeKalb County