For-Profit Companies Are Helping to Put People In Jail for Being Poor: I was jailed for five days simply because I couldn't afford to pay $838 in traffic fines and fees to DeKalb County and a private probation company called Judicial Correction Services, Inc
In December, I was jailed for five days simply because I couldn't afford to pay $838 in traffic fines and fees to DeKalb County and a private probation company called Judicial Correction Services, Inc.
It sounds unbelievable, but that's exactly what happened.
Last summer, I got a traffic ticket just after I pulled my car out of the driveway of my home in Decatur, Georgia. I had no idea that this ticket would eventually land me in the DeKalb County Jail for being poor.
That day, I also didn't know that my driver's license had been suspended. I later learned that it had been suspended because I forgot to submit a form to the Georgia Department of Driver Services after resolving charges related to a minor traffic violation (I missed a "no left turn" sign and appeared late to my court hearing).
In October, the DeKalb County Recorders Court ordered me to pay $810 in fines related to the ticket. When I told the judge that I could not afford to pay $810 that day, she put me on "probation" with Judicial Correction Services (JCS) and told me that I had 30 days to pay. Like other people who couldn't afford to pay fines on sentencing day, I was on "pay-only" probation. My driver's license was also suspended for another six months.
I did everything I could to pay my court fines and the fees JCS charged me for "probation." Because my license was suspended, I could no longer earn money through paid tow truck driving training, which I had done before. I did odd jobs for an auto shop while looking for work and borrowed money from my mom, sister, and grandmother to pay what I could.
But it wasn't enough.
When my 30 days were almost up, I went to see my JCS officer. She charged me with violating probation for failure to pay court fines and JCS fees. She also failed to tell me that I had a right to request a court-appointed lawyer at my probation revocation hearing. Instead, she said I would have to pay $150 for a public defender, even though the fee is $50 and can be waived for poor people. I didn't have the money to pay, so I didn't request a lawyer.
I dressed in slacks and a dress shirt that I borrowed from my dad, since I didn't have my own, and I went to court with my mother for my probation revocation hearing. I hoped the judge might give me an extension of time to pay or community service because I was trying my best to pay. Instead, the judge immediately asked to hear from the JCS officer next to her, who recommended sentencing me to 10 days in jail if I couldn't pay my balance that day. I begged the judge to help me get a permit so that I could drive for work and to give me some more time to pay. Instead she sentenced me to nine days in jail.
I was stunned. I couldn't believe what happened.
All of a sudden, I realized that my mom was going to see me put in handcuffs and taken to jail. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. I asked the judge if I could hug my mom. The judge said no. As I was handcuffed and taken to a cage behind the courtroom, I began to cry.
I spent five days in the DeKalb County Jail where it was cold and dirty, and I didn't get enough food. I felt ashamed, scared, and sad during those five days. It hurt to be separated from my family. And even after I was released, I felt scared that police might arrest me and jail me again for no good reason. After all DeKalb County and JCS essentially jailed me for being poor.