36-year-old mother Qumotria Kennedy was recently a passenger in a vehicle that was pulled over after the driver allegedly didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign. Though Kennedy wasn’t doing anything wrong, police demanded her I.D. and learned that she had a warrant for her arrest out of Biloxi, Mississippi for failing to pay $400 in court fines. The fines were for traffic tickets that she failed to pay in 2013. Back then she told her probation officer that she was too poor to pay the fines and also, didn’t have any way to secure the funds from anyone. Ms. Kennedy worked in downtown Biloxi as a baseball field cleaner. She was earning less than 9 grand annually. For a single person, that is significantly under the poverty level. It’s important to note that Ms. Kennedy supports her two dependent children.
In spite of pleading poverty to her probation officer, Ms. Kennedy was warned that if she didn’t come up with the full amount of all the fines that she owed, in addition to the $40 monthly probation fee, she would be arrested. True to her word, the probation officer sought a warrant to arrest Ms. Kennedy once it was clear that the court fines and fees weren’t being paid.
After Ms. Kennedy was arrested, she was informed that if she didn’t fork over all the outstanding costs that she owed, which now had ballooned to $1000 as a result of all the monthly probation fees, she would remain in jail. Because she couldn’t possibly pay that amount, she remained incarcerated for the next five days.
Kennedy’s experience in jail was nothing short of horrible. She said that the toilet was broken and there was no hot water. She said that she was housed in a cell with a woman who had stabbed her husband. Additionally, for the first three days, she wasn’t even permitted to contact her children to inform them where she was.
In 1983, the United States Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to incarcerate people who couldn’t afford to pay court fees or fines. The highest court in the land made it very clear that arresting someone solely for financial reasons violates the 14th Amendment ensuring equal protection under the law. The Court ruled that judges must first evaluate a person’s ability to pay before sending them to jail. In spite of the Court’s ruling, many are surprised to learn that debtor’s prisons are still alive and well in the U.S.
Fortunately, Ms. Kennedy is suing. She’s the lead plaintiff in a class action suit filed by the ACLU against the city of Biloxi, their court system, their probation department and police department. The ACLU alleges that the various agencies conspired to create a modern day debtor’s prison in an attempt to extort money from the poor. The City of Biloxi believes that the ACLU is wrong in their allegations and that the city affords the poor an opportunity to do community service hours instead. The statistics seem to undermine what the city is alleging. At least 415 people went to jail as a result of warrants that alleged that they failed to pay fines that they owed to the city between September 2014 and March of 2015. Each one of the 415 arrested didn’t have the money to pay back what they were owed and were told they’d be held for days.
One homeless guy, 51-year-old Richard Tillery, spent a month in jail for failing to pay fines stemming from petty crimes that related to his poverty and homelessness. Another man, who was physically disabled as a result of multiple heart attacks, spent seven days in jail after failing to pay $170 for a speeding ticket. Even more tragic, just last month, a man died in a Detroit jail on day 16 of a 30 day sentence for failing to pay a careless driving fine in the amount of $772. Another man died in 2011 in the same jail that Kennedy was housed. He, too, was incarcerated for failing to pay a $409 court fine.
Unfortunately, this unlawful behavior isn’t limited to Biloxi, Mississippi. Back in 2010, the ACLU uncovered the same practices in Washington, Georgia, Ohio, Michigan and Louisiana. The unlawful practices seems to be increasing. More cities use “debtors prisons” in order to generate very needed revenue.
Obviously, this unlawful practice needs to stop…yesterday! If people can’t afford to pay fines, costs and/or fees, they should not be jailed. Instead, they should be afforded the opportunity to perform community service in lieu of payment. Those bureaucrats who continue to thumb their noses at well established law making this practice unlawful, should be prosecuted. Word needs to get around that there will be stiff penalties for those who opt for debtors prisons as a money making scheme.