Clarkston’s court will now inquire into a defendant’s ability to pay a fine before imposing one and determine if the fine poses a “significant financial hardship,” the resolution said. If such a determination is made, the court can then reduce the fine and convert the sentence to community service.
Similar findings must be made when there is a move to revoke a defendant’s probation because of his or her failure to pay the fine, the resolution said.
With a steady influx of refugees over the past few decades, Clarkston has struggled to find enough interpreters for its increasingly diverse population, the Southern Center said.
The council’s resolution says the city will try and flag potential language issues throughout the process, beginning when police officers identify them when issuing citations. Before they appear in court, defendants will be notified in forms written in seven different languages of the availability of certified interpreters.
When a certain interpreter is unavailable, individuals can call into a “language line” for help. If the interpreter on this call believes the individual is still unable to understand the proceedings, that person’s court date will be rescheduled, the resolution said.
Ebony Brown, one of the Southern Center lawyers who signed the November letter, said she was pleased the city took the action it did.
“We are encouraged to see Clarkston take these important steps towards ensuring constitutional compliance, and we look forward to continuing to work with the city to guarantee that everyone who appears in its municipal court is treated with fairness and dignity,” she said.
The vast majority of cases handled by the court involve traffic citations and some involve alleged code violations, Terry said. Because these are low-level misdemeanor cases, very few people face any jail time, the mayor said.
“It was always our assertion that the concerns brought by the Southern Center were exceptions to the norm,” Terry said. “Passage of this resolution now puts us in the gold standard of how municipal courts in Georgia operate. We are taking a compassionate, equitable and fair-minded approach.”