A federal lawsuit has been filed in the U.S. to challenge debt collection practices that have resulted in the jailing of people simply because they are poor, according to an ACLU press release.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said it filed the suit on behalf of Kevin Thompson, a black youth 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.
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“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 American Civil Liberties Union Racial Justice Program, according to the release. “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.”
Susan N. Herman has been president of the ACLU since 2008.
The ACLU charges that DeKalb County and for-profit Judicial Correction Services Inc. (JCS) teamed up to engage in a coercive debt collection scheme that focuses on revenue generation at the expense of protecting poor people’s rights.
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 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.
No such consideration was given to Thompson, who was locked up for five days because he could not afford to pay $838 in fines and fees to the county and JCS – despite the fact that he tried his best to make payments. The lawsuit charges 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.
“What happened to me, and others like me who try their best to pay fines and fees but fall short, is unfair and wrong, ” said Thompson, according to the release. “I hope this lawsuit will help prevent other people from being jailed just because they are poor.”
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.
“In a country where the racial wealth gap remains stark, the link between driving while black and jailed for being poor has a devastating impact on communities of color, ” said Choudhury.
The case, Thompson v. DeKalb County, was filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta.