DKT Liberty Project Fights Illegal Jailing of Indigent Citizens

April 11, 2017

The DKT Liberty Project is partnering with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta to push back against the illegal jailing of poor people by the Recorder’s Court in Columbus, Georgia, which is part of the local court system. The jailing of people who cannot pay fines and fees is often referred to as “the criminalization of poverty”.

The DKT Liberty Project is paying the legal fees in a class action federal lawsuit on behalf of two women:

Elizabeth King

Elizabeth King, an African-American woman, has schizophrenia, and her sole income is a social security payment of $900 per month. King appeared before the court on a charge of shoplifting food from a Piggly Wiggly supermarket. The court’s only public defender stood with King, although he had never met her prior to that time and did not know anything about her or her case. She pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 30 days plus payment of $347.50, one weekend of community service, and 12 months of supervised probation at a rate of $50 per month. No one inquired into King’s limited income or mental health. King was arrested again for taking food from a Piggly Wiggly. The judge asked why she took the food. King answered, “To eat.” With no further inquiry, the judge sentenced King to 120 days in jail.

Keiona Wright is also an African-American and a single mother of five children who was sentenced to 140 days in jail following a hearing relating to her inability to pay traffic ticket fines.  Wright, who worked at a factory making near minimum wage, had previously been sentenced to five years on private probation supervision, plus $4,719.25 in fines and fees for traffic violations. At her hearing, the judge asked Wright why she had not paid her fines. Wright said she had made a few small payments, but had just had her electricity shut off because she could not afford her light bill. The judge told Wright that he did not “want to hear about her problems.” Without further questioning, the judge sentenced Wright to 140 days in jail or payment of $2,079.25.

Lawyers for King and Wright expect to show that the women were jailed in violation of their constitutional rights, including their right to a lawyer, but they cannot access court files that would allow them to fully investigate their cases because the Clerk of the Recorder’s Court has refused to produce any court records.

These critical records are essential to protecting the constitutional rights of these women. In order to bring this case, the Southern Center for Human Rights is suing the court to obtain public records which the court is legally required to keep. The court has refused to produce these records which violates federal and state law, as well as the Georgia Open Records Act.

This case, King and Wright v. Consolidated Government of Columbus, Georgia, is challenging the Recorder’s Court’s longstanding policy of refusing to provide public court records to citizens. This court collects $3.5 million a year in fines, mostly from poor people. Over 60,000 people a year pass through this court, but there is only one public defender assigned to help those who appear.

The failure to provide court records has also long frustrated efforts to challenge the litany of constitutional violations that occur daily in this court, including:

  • Denying indigent people the right to effective assistance of counsel
  • Violating Georgia law by fining people with significant financial hardship
  • Routinely issuing “pay or stay” sentences that require poor people to go to jail only because they cannot pay a certain amount of money
  • Routinely jailing indigent people for failure to pay fines and fees without inquiring into their ability to pay or considering alternatives to incarceration, in violation of the state and federal constitutions and Georgia law

“The tradition in this country has always been that criminal court records are presumptively open to the public,” said SCHR attorney, Sarah Geraghty.  “The Defendants’ policy of barring access to Recorder’s Court case files is a significant barrier to people who wish to challenge their treatment in the Recorder’s Court.”

Debtors’ Prisons, an ancient European practice, were banned in the United States under federal law in 1833. In Bearden v. Georgia (1983), the US Supreme Court made clear that jailing indigent debtors was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The Southern Center for Human Rights and the DKT Liberty Project are working to stop these illegal practices that still go on in some states today.