Lawsuits Target 'Debtors' Prisons' Across the Country Civil rights lawyers are challenging the use of court fines and fees against people who can't afford to pay. This week's ACLU suit against Biloxi, Miss., is the sixth such case since September.
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Lawsuits Target 'Debtors' Prisons' Across the Country

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Lawsuits Target 'Debtors' Prisons' Across the Country

Lawsuits Target 'Debtors' Prisons' Across the Country

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/450546542/450611890" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

New developments today in an ongoing controversy. It concerns a system that could be unfairly targeting the poor. It's the way courts collect money by putting poor people in jail when they don't pay court fines. Those fines are sometimes unaffordable, and they're often for minor offenses like traffic tickets. NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains why several new lawsuits could lead to nationwide reform.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The latest lawsuit was filed today against the city of Biloxi, Miss. Qumotria Kennedy is the lead plaintiff. She says in July, she and a friend were driving to pick up their teenage daughters.

QUMOTRIA KENNEDY: She was driving, and we got pulled on over by the Biloxi Police Department.

SHAPIRO: The officer said the friend had gone through a stop sign. He asked both the driver and Kennedy, who was in the passenger seat, for ID. Minute later, he came back and spoke to Kennedy.

KENNEDY: Can I step out the car? And when I stepped out the car, he told me that I'm being placed under arrest for unpaid tickets.

SHAPIRO: For unpaid tickets from another traffic stop two years earlier when Kennedy was caught driving without a license or insurance. She owed a thousand dollars, but she works sporadically, cleaning motel rooms, and says she didn't have the money.

The lawsuit claims the city of Biloxi routinely arrests people who are so poor they had no means to pay court fines and fees on nonviolent offenses and that the city does this to raise money for its general fund. A city official said the lawsuit's claims are wrong and that Biloxi treats all defendants fairly under the law. Still, it's one of six similar lawsuits filed against municipalities since just September in Biloxi and Jackson, Miss., in Nashville, New Orleans, in Benton County, Wash., and in Alexander City, Ala. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we say Nashville, Tenn., is among six municipalities against which lawsuits have been filed. While such a lawsuit was filed in Nashville, it was actually against Rutherford County, Tenn.]

NUSRAT CHOUDHURY: Cities and towns around the country should realize that they need to follow what's already the gold standard of the law, which is that we don't jail people because of their poverty in America. Everyone gets the same type of justice.

SHAPIRO: Nusrat Choudhury is the attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who filed the lawsuit in Biloxi. She says people with money pay their court fines and are done with the court system. But people who are indigent, unemployed, homeless or living on disability checks are put on payment plans. Those often come with added fees. And if they don't keep up the monthly payments, they can go to jail, putting them further into debt.

CHOUDHURY: People like Ms. Kennedy, you know, a single mom who's struggling to find work and then loses her job, her part-time cleaning job, when she's jailed for being poor.

SHAPIRO: Choudhury says lawyers are filing more of these cases as the issue gets more attention. A key moment came in March when the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report highly critical of such court practices in Ferguson, Mo.

Another reason for the lawsuits is that lawyers are starting to win. The ACLU got a settlement earlier this year in DeKalb County, Ga., over the jailing of a teen who could not pay his fees in a traffic case. That led to new court procedures and more access to public defenders. And Alec Karakatansis of Equal Justice Under Law brought class-action suits that led to change in St. Louis County and in Montgomery, Ala.

ALEC KARAKATANSIS: We're showing that when you bring these things to the attention of the courts, they will vindicate federal Constitutional rights. And the way that many of these local jurisdictions have been running their court system is blatantly unconstitutional. And so now we're seeing a growing awareness that these issues can and should be treated like the emergencies that they are.

SHAPIRO: NPR, in a series of stories in 2014, showed that courts in all 50 states are charging more and more for court costs. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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