Pun­ish­ing the poor?

Court poli­cies can keep des­ti­tute in debt cy­cle

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY TRAVIS LOLLER

LIB­ERTY, Tenn. — Johnny Gibbs has been try­ing to get a valid driver’s li­cense for 20 years, but he just can’t af­ford it. To pun­ish him for high school tru­ancy in 1999, Ten­nessee of­fi­cials told him he would not be able to legally drive un­til he turned 21. He drove any­way, in­cur­ring two tick­ets and rack­ing up more than $1,000 in fines and fees.

Like other low-in­come de­fen­dants in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions across the na­tion, Gibbs couldn’t pay and ended up serv­ing jail time and pro­ba­tion.

That in­curred another cost: a monthly su­per­vi­sion fee to a pri­vate pro­ba­tion com­pany.

Rather than risk another ar­rest, Gibbs, now 38, de­cided to quit driv­ing, which he said makes it nearly im­pos­si­ble to work. He said he spent sev­eral years liv­ing in a mo­tel room with his mother, his dis­abled fa­ther and his sis­ter be­fore they all be­came home­less. In Au­gust, the fam­ily found hous­ing in a di­lap­i­dated trailer, miles from the near­est town or food source.

“Hon­estly, I feel like I’m be­ing pun­ished for

be­ing poor,” Gibbs said.

For years, state and city of­fi­cials in the U.S. — un­will­ing to raise taxes — have steadily in­creased their re­liance on court fines and fees to bal­ance bud­gets. Poor de­fen­dants who can’t pay are jailed, clog­ging lo­cal lock­ups with peo­ple who in many cases have not been con­victed of any crime and putting oth­ers on pro­ba­tion that doesn’t end un­til all debts are erased.

A grow­ing num­ber of le­gal groups and non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions through­out the U.S. are chal­leng­ing those prac­tices, but they con­tinue — de­spite a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court de­ci­sion that found it un­con­sti­tu­tional to in­car­cer­ate de­fen­dants too poor to pay fines.

In Ok­la­homa, for ex­am­ple, the Wash­ing­ton-based Civil Rights Corps, which has lit­i­gated more than 20 law­suits since it was founded in 2016 to undo var­i­ous as­pects of “user-funded jus­tice,” is chal­leng­ing poli­cies that it claims have led to one of the high­est in­car­cer­a­tion rates in the world.

Coun­ties across the

state of Ok­la­homa re­fer debt col­lec­tion to a for-profit com­pany, Aberdeen En­ter­prizes II, which adds an ad­di­tional 30% fee and threat­ens debtors with ar­rest. Many of those who can’t pay are not just thrown in jail; they’re also made to pay for their in­car­cer­a­tion, fur­ther in­creas­ing their debt.

Ten­nessee Supreme Court Jus­tice Jef­frey Bivens said re­form­ing fees, fines and bail is a pri­or­ity of the Con­fer­ence of Chief Jus­tices, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion com­pris­ing top

ju­di­cial of­fi­cials from each of the 50 states.

“We’re hav­ing sit­u­a­tions where even with $500 or $1,000 bail, th­ese folks can’t make that bail,” Bivens said. “Then they lose their jobs … their fam­i­lies, their chil­dren. … It’s a never-end­ing and in­creas­ing cy­cle.”

Just last year, a na­tional task force of state court ad­min­is­tra­tors and chief jus­tices re­leased a list of prin­ci­ples stat­ing that courts should be funded en­tirely by gov­ern­ments and should not be used as

“a rev­enue-gen­er­at­ing arm.”

The non­profit Vera In­sti­tute of Jus­tice New Or­leans is try­ing to make the Big Easy the first city in the coun­try to elim­i­nate both money bail and con­vic­tion fines and fees. The group’s data shows the city could dip into its own cof­fers for the $2.8 mil­lion the lo­cal crim­i­nal court, dis­trict at­tor­ney and public de­fender now get from the fines and fees — and still come out nearly $3 mil­lion ahead. That’s be­cause the city is spend­ing about $5.4 mil­lion a year to lock peo­ple up when they can’t pay, said Jon Wool, the in­sti­tute’s di­rec­tor of jus­tice pol­icy.

Mem­phis Dis­trict At­tor­ney Amy Weirich said she has sim­ply stopped pros­e­cut­ing peo­ple ar­rested for driv­ing on a sus­pended or re­voked li­cense “if the sole rea­son was be­cause the driver owed some­body money.”

She said the move has cut her of­fice’s workload by a third and freed up staff to fo­cus on se­ri­ous crime.

Hamil­ton County Dis­trict At­tor­ney Gen­eral Neal Pinkston de­clined to com­ment on whether state prose­cu­tors in Chat­tanooga are do­ing sim­i­lar mea­sures. But prose­cu­tors do re­fer some peo­ple charged with driv­ing on re­voked or sus­pended li­censes to a driver’s li­cense docket in Gen­eral Ses­sions Court where they can get on pay­ment plans.

But in some states, law­mak­ers are not just re­sist­ing calls to change the sys­tem; they are work­ing harder than ever to en­force it.

In North Carolina, where more than $250 mil­lion of the fis­cal year 2018 gen­eral fund came from court fines and fees, a state law re­quires judges who waive them to ex­plain why in a no­ti­fi­ca­tion to every govern­ment agency that could be af­fected by the lost rev­enue.

“That’s over 100 agen­cies,” said Demo­cratic state Rep. Mar­cia Morey, of Durham, a judge for 18 years be­fore she joined the leg­is­la­ture in 2017. “It’s re­ally un­en­force­able. … It’s just to pres­sure judges.”

In Gibbs’ home state of Ten­nessee, state leg­is­la­tors re­fused to elim­i­nate a law strip­ping li­censes from peo­ple who owe money to the courts, de­spite a fed­eral court rul­ing that it was un­con­sti­tu­tional. In­stead, they tweaked the leg­is­la­tion to al­low more than 300,000 driv­ers to keep driv­ing while slowly pay­ing off their debt. For those who truly can’t pay, they can have their debt sus­pended un­til they are able, a strat­egy that has the po­ten­tial to keep in­di­gent driv­ers such as Gibbs in­volved in the court sys­tem for many years to come.

“I missed my daugh­ter’s 13th birth­day,” he said. “I missed the birth of my 9-month-old. … Ba­si­cally ev­ery­thing in life I’ve missed be­cause of a lit­tle plas­tic card they won’t let me have.”


Johnny Gibbs thinks about what he needs to get done after lin­ing up a ride with a friend in April. Gibbs has been try­ing to get a valid driver’s li­cense for 20 years, but he can’t af­ford it.


Johnny Gibbs helps his dis­abled fa­ther, Mike, 65, into their home in Lib­erty, Tenn.

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