DeKalb settles lawsuit over jailing of poor defendants

DeKalb County has agreed to settle a federal lawsuit accusing it of improperly jailing poor people who couldn’t afford misdemeanor probation plans at Recorder’s Court.

The settlement comes as DeKalb County is restructuring its courts as required under new legislation that eliminates its Recorder’s Court and transfers its traffic cases to DeKalb County State Court.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the federal lawsuit in January on behalf of 19-year-old Kevin Thompson, who was placed on probation because he didn’t have enough money to immediately pay a fine for a driving offense. A 1983 U.S. Supreme Court case prohibits judges from revoking probation for a failure to pay if a defendant is indigent and the failure to pay is not willful.

Yet when Thompson failed to come up with $838 to pay off fines and fees during 30 days on probation, a Recorder’s Court judge sent him to jail.

Under the settlement announced Thursday, DeKalb County did not admit wrongdoing. But DeKalb and the other defendants, which include the court’s chief judge and the probation company Judicial Correction Services, agreed to pay $70,000. The defendants also agreed to implement a system to protect poor defendants from improper jailings and make sure they are aware of their right to an attorney.

“Being poor is not a crime, and these measures will help ensure that people’s freedom will not rest on their ability to pay traffic fines and fees they cannot afford,” said ACLU attorney Nusrat Choudhury.

Unlike most states, Georgia places many people on probation not because they need supervision, but because they simply need time to pay off traffic fines. The overall cost of an offense often doubles once probation fees are added to the tab.

Reforms for Georgia’s entire misdemeanor probation system are now being considered by the General Assembly. Pending legislation includes a clear requirement that the state’s judges examine a defendant’s finances before revoking probation for a failure to pay.

Choudhury said part of the settlement of the DeKalb case involves the adoption of a “bench card” to instruct judges on how to determine a defendant’s ability to pay. The card will also offer alternatives to jail. She said this and other elements of the settlement could be adopted by other courts.

The court restructuring in DeKalb also could create a model for other courts in handling defendants too poor to pay traffic fines, even though its probation system is not what led the General Assembly to restructure the county’s courts.

Recent questions about whether DeKalb Recorder’s Court actually had jurisdiction over state traffic offenses prompted passage of a bill to create a new traffic division in DeKalb County State Court and close the Recorder’s Court. Gov. Nathan Deal signed the legislation earlier this month.

But the restructuring has prompted a different approach to processing traffic cases. DeKalb Recorder’s Court outsourced its probation work to a for-profit company and placed thousands of people on “pay only” probation with the company every year.

As it begins to process cases, the new traffic division of DeKalb County State Court isn’t placing people on probation if they need time to pay a traffic fine. Instead, Chief Judge Wayne Purdom has prescribed a program that is deferring sentences for two- or six-week periods if people need time to pay. The system seems to be working, Purdom said.

“So far we have only had follow-up calendars on the two-week resets,” Purdom said. “Most of these folks are people who have said they can pay the fine by the next paycheck. They are doing so at a 90 percent rate.”

Purdom said he should have a better of idea by July of how well the new system will work in the long run, but he said he expects to cut in half the number of referrals to probation for payment only.

“The folks who do wind up on probation — mostly to do community service in lieu of a fine when they are unable to pay the fine by the deferred sentencing date — will be monitored by the DeKalb County probation rather than a private probation company,” Purdom said. “Some more serious cases will have probation for other reasons.”

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