Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Settlement Ends Montgomery, Alabama Debtor’s Prison

Debtor’s prison has come to an end in the city of Montgomery, Alabama. Following a federal district court’s grant of a preliminary injunction requiring the city to correct its unconstitutional practice of jailing people who could not afford to pay fines, the city capitulated and entered into an extensive settlement agreement.

As previously reported in PLN, the use of private companies to provide probation services and collect fines in criminal cases has been wrought with abusive efforts to squeeze profits from the poor. [See: PLN, Jan. 2014, p.18]. Jailing impoverished defendants due to their inability to pay spawned multiple lawsuits against the City of Montgomery, where that practice was commonplace.

Harriet Cleveland, 50, received several tickets for failing to have car insurance when stopped at police checkpoints in her neighborhood. She was barely getting by after losing her job during the Great Recession, but was ordered to pay $140 monthly toward her fines. She paid what she could, which put her further behind.

Faced with the threat of losing her home, Cleveland asked for relief. The probation office told her she could go to court, which she knew would land her in jail. She was not the only one to face such a dilemma. “I sat and watched a lot of people come out there, and a lot of money came out of their hands that I know they didn’t have to give,” she said. “I’d see $200 or $300 come out of this young man’s pocket.”

When she had no more money for her fines, she received a notice that told her to pay $2,714 or face a jail term. Not long afterwards she was arrested at her home while babysitting her grandson. A judge sentenced her to 31 days in jail. Ten days later, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) got involved, and Cleveland was released.

SPLC, a civil rights organization, filed suit on behalf of Cleveland in October 2013, while another organization, Equal Justice Under Law, filed a lawsuit against the City of Montgomery raising similar claims in 2014. What Cleveland learned after her arrest was that a large portion of the fines in her criminal case were going to pay the fees of Judicial Correction Services (JCS), a private company that contracted with the city to provide probation services. Of the $140 monthly payment Cleveland made toward her fines, $40 went to JCS.

“Putting someone like Ms. Cleveland behind bars because they’re too poor to pay a fine is simply barbaric,” said SPLC deputy legal director David Dinielli. “Compounding the nightmare for many indigent people in this situation are profit-hungry companies that are essentially demanding fees to keep them out of jail.”

SPLC filed a separate lawsuit on behalf of Markis Antwuan Watts, an indigent defendant who suffered serious injuries after being shot in the face, which resulted in large medical bills and months of unemployment. As a result, he was unable to pay fines imposed in a misdemeanor case and faced 54 days in jail. See: Watts v. City of Montgomery, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:13-cv-00733-MEF-CSC.

An August 26, 2014 joint settlement in the lawsuits brought by SPLC and Equal Justice Under Law requires the city to determine if a person is indigent with respect to the payment of fines. Among other detailed provisions, the city will create payment plans for fines as low as $25 a month or provide the option of performing community service until the debt is paid. Jail will no longer be imposed on indigent defendants unable to pay fines.

The district court granted the parties’ joint motion for entry of an agreed settlement order on November 17, 2014, finding the new judicial procedures adopted by the City of Montgomery for indigent defendants and nonpayment of fees and fines were constitutional. Remaining issues in the Mitchell case, including attorneys’ fees, were resolved in early 2015. See: Cleveland v. City of Montgomery, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:13-cv-00732-MHT-TFM; Mitchell v. City of Montgomery, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:14-cv-00186-MHT-CSC.

Another development stemming from the litigation is that the city did not renew its contract with JCS, which subsequently closed its Montgomery office.

Additional source:

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal cases

Mitchell v. City of Montgomery

Cleveland v. City of Montgomery

Watts v. City of Montgomery,