More cities are turning to private probation companies like Judicial Corrections Services (JCS) in order to collect unpaid fines — but, PBS NewsHour reports, they are doing so unconstitutionally, by threatening to imprison debtors.
Tim Fugatt was pulled over in December of 2010 and ticketed for having an expired tag on his license plate. He had been returning home from the hospital where his infant son, Cole, was being treated for a rare brain disease.
He and his wife, Kristy, who had also been ticketed, were ordered to appear in Childersburg municipal court. After informing the judge about their son’s condition, the judge found them both “not guilty” — however, he did order them to pay “court costs” that added up to almost $500.
Because of the time Fugatt was spending at the hospital, he was unable to maintain regular employment and fell behind on his scheduled payments, which forced the city to turn their case over to JCS. When he and his wife were unable to pay, they were arrested.
“I felt completely like a criminal. I mean I didn’t sell drugs. I didn’t break into anyone’s home. I didn’t kill anybody. I had an expired tag.”
“I had a dying child, no steady job at that point because we were back and forth to the hospital,” he added. “I was doing what I could do.”
In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that “a jail term [being given] solely because the defendant is indigent and cannot forthwith pay the fine in full” was unconstitutional, but according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s David Dinelli, that is precisely what happened to Tim and Kristy Fugatt — as well as many others.
“Everyone thinks that debtor’s prison is over,” he told NewsHour. “It isn’t.”
“As a matter of practice — and in some cases, policy — the courts ask one question, ‘Can you pay the fine?’ If you can’t then you have to do what’s called ‘sit it out in jail.’ That is unconstitutional unless the court first conducts an inquiry into whether they’re indigent and the causes for their inability to pay the fine.”
Even worse, because the Fugatts were unable to pay their court costs on time, they have incurred additional fees and fines. What began as a $500 court fee to cover three charges for which they were found “not guilty” has ballooned. They have already paid the almost $1,300 to the Childersburg Court, but that number doesn’t include what they owe JCS.
Watch the entire report via PBS News Hour on YouTube below.