Vera Cheeks, a resident of Bainbridge, Georgia, was ticketed for rolling through a stop sign in 2014. The judge hit her with a $135 fine and ordered her to pay it in full immediately. Cheeks said that she was unemployed and caring for her terminally ill father, so the judge gave her three months to pay up, during which time she’d be on “probation.” He sent her to a room behind the courtroom, where a long line of people—all of them African-American—were waiting to pay money to a woman behind a desk. “It was like the twilight zone, totally mind-boggling,” Cheeks recalls.
The woman behind the desk told Cheeks that she had to sign a paper indicating that she had been placed on probation and now owed $267—the fine plus $105 for the (for-profit) probation company that would be monitoring her, as well as $27 for the Georgia Crime Victims Emergency Fund. When Cheeks refused to agree to the so-called probation and the additional sums, the woman—who, it turned out, worked for the probation company—told her that the judge would put her in jail for five days. Cheeks still refused, and finally the woman demanded a $50 payment on the spot if Cheeks wanted to avoid being jailed. Cheeks’s fiancé raised the money by pawning her engagement ring and Weed Eater lawn machine. That avoided the crisis for the moment, but Cheeks was told she would still be jailed if she was late on even one payment.
Cheeks went home furious. She says that people in town knew something was wrong, but they were all too scared to do anything. She Googled for three hours and found her way to Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights, who used Cheeks’s case to challenge the threat of jail by private probation companies looking to extract exorbitant fines and fees from people who can’t afford them. Geraghty resolved Cheeks’s issue—and used the case to end Bainbridge’s illegal money-collecting scheme—by pointing out that incarcerating people unable to pay a fine was unconstitutional.
Cheeks was fortunate. She found a lawyer (and a great one at that) and was forced neither to pay an excessive fine nor go to jail when she couldn’t afford it. But many poor Americans aren’t so lucky. While most people in this country believe that debtors’ prisons are a thing of the past, Americans are in jail by the thousands for no other reason than being unable to pay a fine and its accompanying fees—which is unconstitutional, in many instances. Yet even when jail doesn’t ensue, the courts’ policy of garnishing wages and seizing tax refunds creates a prison of another kind. An estimated 10 million people currently owe a collective $50 billion in court debt.
Meanwhile, even more people are locked up pending trial on low-level misdemeanors or violations because they can’t afford the bail set for them. Altogether, roughly 500,000 people are in jails across the country simply because they are poor. These men and women haven’t been found guilty of any crime. Rather, most of them have merely been accused of low-level infractions that shouldn’t be crimes at all and that often don’t carry jail time. One result is that many low-income people plead guilty just to get out even if they are innocent, leaving them with a lifetime of collateral consequences. (For more on this, see “The Injustice of Cash Bail,” by Bryce Covert, in the November 6 issue of The Nation.)