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Dekalb County Settles Lawsuit, Ends Debtors’ Prisons

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union reached a settlement that will end debtors’ prisons in Dekalb County, Georgia. The settlement is the latest in a string of lawsuits challenging contracts involving for-profit probation company Judicial Correction Services (JCS). [See: PLN, Jan. 2014, p.18].

The suit, filed in January 2015, stated that Kevin Thompson, a teenager, was jailed for five days on December 8, 2014 because he could not afford to pay $838 in fines and fees for a traffic ticket. During a court hearing on his probation revocation, Thompson was not informed of his right to request court-appointed counsel, was not provided counsel and was not afforded a pre-deprivation indigency hearing prior to being jailed.

The settlement in the case provides for a $70,000 payment to compensate Thompson for damages and for attorney fees payable to the ACLU. It also requires several changes in the administration of proceedings for failure to pay fines or fees in Dekalb County Recorders Court. Those changes include: 1) Adoption of a “bench card” that provides instructions to judges on how to protect defendants’ right to counsel, how to avoid sending people to jail and how to seek alternatives to jail for failure to pay fines or fees; 2) Training and guidance for Recorders Court personnel involved in probation revocation proceedings for failure to pay fines and fees; and 3) Revising forms to inform people charged with probation violations of their right to counsel and waiver of court-appointed attorney fees.

The settlement agreement was touted as a model for other jurisdictions.

“Being poor is not a crime, and these measures will help ensure that people’s freedom will not rest on their ability to pay traffic fines and fees they cannot afford,” said ACLU attorney Nusrat Choudhury. “These measures also serve as a model for courts across Georgia and other states to help ensure that our poorest and richest citizens are treated equally and fairly.”

PLN has previously reported on the trend towards the use of debtors’ prisons, and civil rights advocates’ efforts to reverse that trend. [See: PLN, Feb. 2016, p.61; Dec. 2014, p.36; May 2011, p.40]. JCS has been at the forefront of partnering with government agencies to engage in coercive debt collection practices that focus on revenue generation at the expense of protecting the rights of poor defendants. At one point, JCS had contracts with about 100 of Alabama’s approximately 250 cities to operate their probation services.

Cases such as Harriet Cleveland, a 50-year-old grandmother who was jailed for failure to pay fines after losing her job, are garnering the public’s interest and fueling criticism about for-profit probation services that lead to debtors’ prisons.

“The more lawsuits are filed, the more attention is paid to the issue, and other lawyers start to get interested in pursuing similar claims,” said Birmingham attorney Lisa Borden. See: Thompson v. Dekalb County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ga.), Case No. 1:15-cv-00280-TWT.

Additional sources: ACLU,

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Related legal case

Thompson v. Dekalb County