According to a press release dated January 29, 2015 issued by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU 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.
"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 ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "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."
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.
The case, Thompson v. DeKalb County, was filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta.
The complaint is at: https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform-racial-justice/thompson-v-dekalb-county-aclu-complaint
The press statement is at: https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform-racial-justice/aclu-challenges-debt-collection-practices-target-poor
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