By World News Report Bureau
Kevin Thompson, a black teenager driving a car was pulled up by a police officer for a minor traffic violation in the driveway of his house in Decatur, Georgia. He had no idea that this would eventually land him in the DeKalb County Jail.
The police officer who pulled him up did not inform him that his driver’s license was being suspended. Later his license was suspended because he missed a “no left turn” sign, appeared late to the court hearing and forgot to submit a form to the Georgia Department of Driver Services.
The DeKalb County Recorder’s Court ordered him to pay $810 in fines. However when he told the judge that he could not afford to pay such a big amount she put him on “probation” with Judicial Correction Services (JCS) and gave him 30 days to pay up. His driver’s license was suspended for another six months.
He did everything he could to pay the court fines and the JCS fees. He could no longer earn money through paid tow truck driving training, which he was doing before. He went and did odd jobs for an auto shop while looking for work and borrowed money from his mom, sister, and grandmother to pay what he could.
But it wasn’t enough. When his 30 days were up, he went to see the JCS officer.
She charged him with violating probation for failure to pay court fines and JCS fees. And also imposed an additional fine of $150 for a public defender, even though the fee is $50. That too could have been waived as he was poor.
Nobody there told Kevin that he had a right to request a court-appointed lawyer at the probation revocation hearing.
Kevin who didn’t have the money to pay also went without a lawyer. Still the judge asked him to pay the amount that very day.
When Kevin expressed his inability to do so, the judge sentenced him to jail. He was stunned and couldn’t believe what was happening.
All of a sudden, he was handcuffed and taken to jail. With tears in his eyes, he asked the judge if he could hug his mom. The judge refused. He was taken to a cage behind the courtroom and from there to the DeKalb County Jail, which was cold and dirty.
Even today h has not been able to forget the trauma he suffered in jail and were afraid that the police might arrest and jail him again under some pretext or another.
He is not alone – there are many others like him who try can’t pay the fine despite trying their best or fall short.
Even Vera Cheeks, of Bainbridge, met with a similar fate when she was asked to pay a $135 fine for not driving past a stop sign. Vera Cheeks’ appeal for mercy in court, as she was unable to pay $50, was rejected. She was placed on probation, and her fiancé had to pawn her engagement ring before she could leave the building.
There is a massive system of collecting money from people in the name of probation. More than 500,000 Georgians were on probation in 2013 –far more than any other state, according to a new federal report. The probation officers who handle most of the misdemeanor cases are employees of for-profit probation companies. People who fail to pay fines are threatened with jail.
It all started two decades ago, when the General Assembly gave local courts the option to hire private companies to handle misdemeanor probation. In 2000, the laws were revised to limit the role of state to supervising felons on probation. As a result, courts could hire a company to oversee misdemeanor cases. But because there was a shortage of manpower, private companies were asked to chip in. These probation companies have since grown into large organizations with multi-state operations. These private probation companies do not cost anything to the courts and get their income from monthly fees paid by people on probation, which may be around $35 a month.
It is the basis for an unjust system of abuses, improper extensions of probation terms and improper warrants. In most cases, the companies demanding money from people who can’t afford to pay. Meanwhile, the interest or penalty on the amount of fine gets adding up. It is a vicious circle to make money at the offenders cost.
The American Civil Liberties Union ACLU and the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a federal lawsuit against DeKalb County, Georgia and Judicial Correction Services Inc against all this in January.
The US Constitution prohibits local governments and for-profit companies from putting poor people in jail. 30 years ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that jailing people who cannot afford to pay violates the fairness and equality values embedded in the 14th Amendment to the 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.
According to ACLU, the DeKalb County and Judicial Correction Services, Inc. (JCS) were teaming to engage in a coercive revenue generation and unethical debt collection practices. Blacks make up 54 % of the DeKalb County population. Nearly all probationers jailed for failure to pay are black.
Less than two months after the suit the parties reached a settlement agreement on March, 18, 2015. Thompson received a monetary payment under the settlement. The chief judge of the DeKalb County Recorder’s Court agreed to protect the rights of people who cannot afford to pay the fine.
Being poor is not a crime. By standing up for his rights, Kevin Thompson has shown that this principle remains true today. In the process, he has helped bring about a positive change in the society around him.