Although the U.S. Constitution states that impoverished citizens cannot be jailed because of their inability to pay fines and other debts, a church music director in Alabama and his wife were jailed because they were incapable of paying court costs that stemmed from expired license plate violations.
Tim Fugatt, a music pastor at Valley View Church of God in Sylacauga, and his wife, Kristy, were going through a financially tough time in December of 2010 when they were both pulled over and cited for having expired license plates in the town of Childersburg.
The couple had recently found out that their new-born son, Cole, was diagnosed with a rare brain disease that forced them to keep their son in the hospital. With Kristy not working, and Tim living off a modest church music director pay, the two appeared in Childersburg municipal court and pled for the judge to rule them "not guilty" and explained the situation with their son and their financial struggles.
Although the judge granted their request to be "not guilty", the judge still ruled that both of them had to pay their court costs, which amounted to about $500 between the two of them.
As the couple was spending just about every minute they possibly could with their son, who would eventually die a few months later, Tim no longer had time to fulfill his duties as a music director and elected to quit his position at the church.
With neither of the Fugatts working, they could no longer afford to keep making their monthly payments on their court costs. When the Fugatts defaulted on the court payments, their debt was turned over to a private probationary company called Judicial Correction Services, a company that collects fines for judiciaries that do not have their own personnel to handle the debt of offenders.
Fugatt told PBS's Newshour that he was warned by JCS that if he and his wife did not pay they would be jailed. Fugatt said that when he and his wife could no longer afford to pay JCS and they missed one court date, they were taken into custody and jailed. Although they were released a few hours later, it was not until after one of their relatives paid a portion of what the couple owed.
"I felt completely like a criminal," Fugatt said. "I mean, I didn't sell drugs. I didn't break into anyone's home. I didn't kill anybody. I had an expired tag."
Although the Fourteenth Amendment states that it is unconstitutional to imprison individuals who cannot afford to pay their debts, the Fugatts are not the only ones being jailed over inability to pay debt. David Dinelli, deputy legal director at Southern Poverty Law Center, told PBS that he estimates that over 1,000 people in Alabama are jailed every month because of their inability to pay a fine.
"Everyone thinks that debtor's prison is over. It's behind us. It isn't," Dinelli said. "As a matter of practice, and in some cases, policy, the courts ask one question 'can you pay the fine?' If you can't then you have to what's called 'sit it out in jail.' That is unconstitutional unless the court first conducts an inquiry into whether they're indigent and their causes for the inability to pay the fine."
Craig DeRoche, executive director of the Christian criminal justice activist group Justice Fellowship, told The Christian Post that the problem is not just limited to Alabama but it has become an issue in municipal courts around the country.
"This is a problem that pops up across America. It tends to come and go at the community level," DeRoche said. "On a more practical level, it disrespects and devalues the lives of victims of crime and the community because what the government is essentially saying is that they are more important, and them getting their money is more important than those they serve: the community and the victims of crime."
As for the Fugatts and others in their situation, the involvement of JCS, has only compounded their issue. Because JCS does not charge the judiciaries for collecting their fines, the company makes money by charging the offenders a $10 startup fee and a $40 weekly fee until their debt is paid in full. In the case of the Fugatt's, who originally only owed $500, the involvement of JCS has caused the Fugatt's to pay nearly $1,300.
A Human Rights Watch report estimates that over 1,000 jurisdictions in 12 states are using private probationary companies like JCS to collect on defaulted fines. Although these companies help these municipalities make up for budget shortfalls, DeRoche said the use of these probationary companies and the practice of jailing indigent offenders causes these local judiciaries to lose sight of proper justice.
"They are supposed to be focused on public safety and seeking justice," DeRoche said. "To the extent that you are losing your focus on improving public safety to deal with funding your own operations, we have this moral hazard, this perverse incentive to be focused on your own funding as opposed to justice … So, what are they doing it for in the first place. Are they doing it to seek justice, or is it just a collection of money attempting to balance their budget."
DeRoche criticized the executive and legislative branches of municipal governments for not holding the practices of the judiciaires accountable.
"What needs to be done more is legislative and executive branch oversight over what the judiciary is doing with their own fines, fees and structure," DeRoche said.
Lawsuits against municipalities, have been successful in curbing the practice of jailing indigent debtors. The Fugatts became part of a lawsuit against the city of Childersburg, which alleges that incarcerating people because of their inability to pay violated the Constitution. Since the lawsuit was filed, Childersburg has issued a "standing order" that states "in no case shall an indigent defendant be incarcerated."
A similar lawsuit against the city of Montgomery, Alabama, led to the agreement on a settlement that states that the town must stop contracting with JCS. The town has also agreed to stop jailing indigent offenders.
"I would expect there to be more cases to follow," DeRoche said.