At the single stoplight in Harpersville, Alabama, Debra Shoemaker Ford saw the police lights flash. On that January day in 2007, she steered her beat-up black Chevy Blazer into the parking lot, under the big red dot advertising Jack’s restaurant. The officer said she had a taillight out. He asked to see her license.
Ford didn’t have one. Her license had been revoked after she failed to pay a court judgment against her for a traffic ticket in a nearby town. She hadn’t worked since being in a car wreck a decade earlier, surviving instead on disability payments of about $670 a month. That meant generic washing powder instead of Purex. Cigarettes, when she allowed herself, were rationed, each drag a pleasure measured in pennies. To pay the ticket, plus the fee to reinstate her license, would have meant going without essentials. Though she knew she shouldn’t, Ford—a small white woman in her 50s with a fringe of bangs and a raspy voice— regularly climbed behind the wheel of her old Chevy. In rural Alabama, it’s the only way to get around.
Ford left the parking lot that day with tickets for driving without a license and having no proof of insurance, which would come to $745 with court costs. She didn’t know it yet, but they would also cause her to spend years cycling through court, jail, and the offices of a private probation company called Judicial Correction Services. JCS had contracted with the town of Harpersville several years earlier to help collect on court fines, and also to earn a little something extra for itself. It did this by charging probationers like Ford a monthly fee (typically between $35 and $45), while tacking on additional charges for court-mandated classes and electronic monitoring. In Birmingham, these fees included $240 for a course in something called “Moral Reconation Therapy.”
Ford tried to meet her mounting debt to Harpersville, but as the months passed and the fees added up, she fell behind and stopped paying. In June 2007, JCS sent out a letter telling her to pay $145 immediately or face jail. But the letter was returned as undeliverable—a fact that didn’t stop the Harpersville Municipal Court from issuing a warrant for her arrest. Almost two years later, in January 2009, Ford was arrested on that outstanding warrant and promptly booked in the county jail—where, to offset costs, the town charged her $31 a day for her stay.
Ford spent seven weeks in jail, during which time her debt grew into the thousands. She did not, however, see the inside of a courtroom. All that the lawyer hired by her family managed to do was to get her transferred eventually to a work-release program, which stopped her jail fees from mounting and allowed her to live in a closed facility, the Shelby County Work Release Center, while going to work. Ford found a minimum-wage job at a local thrift store, but after buying food and handing a cut to the work-release program—40 percent of her gross earnings—there wasn’t much left to pay off the fines that kept her there. What had started out as a simple traffic violation had become an indefinite sentence in debtors’ purgatory—one that would take her years to pay her way out.