Cellphone video of a judge threatening to jail indigent defendants in Bowdon, Georgia, for failure to pay fines and fees prompted a policy change. Yet, so called “debtors prisons” are still a problem in the state.
While in court to contest citations, including one for keeping a miniature pony in her yard, Mila Hentzien, 31 became appalled by the proceedings. “I had noticed that they had inmates there that they were asking for money,“ she said. “How can you be incarcerated and have any money?”
She saw one woman with a small child be threatened with immediate jail unless she paid $320.00. “I almost pulled the money out of my pocket to give it to her – that’s how bad it was,” said Hentzien. “I knew something was illegal about it, you know.”
Hentzien then began taking video on her cell phone. The video showed the court in action. “You can pay what you have, you can call whoever you need to call, go to an A.T.M. if you need to, do what you need to do,” Judge Richard A. Diment said to one defendant. “Call friends, call your employer, but until you get $300.00 here tonight, you won’t be able to leave.” That defendant had $150.00 on her and said she had just started working.
Another defendant had been unemployed for two years and received food stamps. Diment told him, “You’re going to have to figure out a way to get this paid, do you understand me, or you’re going to jail, one way or the other. Do you understand?”
The Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) has been fighting debtor’s prisons. “The practice that we see here is one that happens in courts around the state, and it shows an over zealousness to collect fines and fees at the expense of basic fairness,” said SCHR attorney Sarah Geraghty.
The February 2014 video compelled SWCHR to send observers to Diment’s courtroom. In a June, 2015 letter, the observers said they saw the Judge demand immediate payments ranging from $20.00 to more than $1,000.00. They also cited the case of a woman who spent a month in jail for a probation violation for driving on a suspended license ordered to remain in jail until she paid $500.00, the letter stated.
The complaint compelled the City of Bowden to agree to changes in an order by Judge Diment. The changes include informing defendants of their right to counsel prior to a plea entry and ending the threat of jail if immediate payment is not made. The failure to pay fines requires the court to determine if the violation is willful or the result of poverty.
Source: New York Times
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login