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Minor Infractions Lead to Jail as Private Probation Firms Assess Fees that Go Unpaid

Posted Jul 3, 2012 7:59 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Lawsuits in Alabama and Georgia are challenging the jailing of poor people who can’t afford to pay fines for minor infractions and the much larger fees charged by private probation companies.

One of those jailed is Richard Garrett, who spent two years in a Childersburg, Ala., jail and owes $10,000 for minor traffic and license violations, the New York Times reports. In the same town, Gina Ray’s original $179 for speeding mushroomed to $3,170 after she failed to show up in court on the original charge (she says the ticket had the wrong date), she was charged with driving without a license, and then assessed fees for the 40 days she was jailed.

Birmingham lawyer William Dawson has filed a suit on behalf of Garrett and others against the probation company, Judicial Correction Services. “The Supreme Court has made clear that it is unconstitutional to jail people just because they can’t pay a fine,” Dawson told the newspaper. Similar suits have been filed in Georgia.

Another lawyer tracking the issue is Lisa Borden, a partner in Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz in Birmingham. She tells the Times that the probation companies are aggressive. “Those arrested are not told about the right to counsel or asked whether they are indigent or offered an alternative to fines and jail,” she said. “There are real constitutional issues at stake.”

Two officials with Judicial Correction Services told the Times in an interview that it’s up to courts to determine who is unable to pay the fees. “We hear a lot of ‘I can’t pay the fee,’ ” said chief marketing officer Kevin Egan. “It is not our job to figure that out. Only the judge can make that determination.”

Related coverage:

ABA Journal: “Get Out of Jail—But Not Free: Courts Scramble to Fill Their Coffers by Billing Ex-Cons”

ABAJournal.com: “Debtors’ Prisons a Reality for Defendants Unable to Pay Fees and Fines”

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