Qumotria Kennedy, a 36-year-old single mother with teenage kids from Biloxi,Mississippi, was driving around the city with a friend in July when they were pulled over by police for allegedly running a stop sign. Though Kennedy was the passenger, her name was put through a police database that flashed up a warrant for her arrest on charges that she failed to pay $400 in court fines.
The fines were for other traffic violations dating back to 2013. At that time, Kennedy says she told her probation officers – a private company called Judicial Corrections Services Inc (JCS) – that she was so poor there was no way she could find the money.
She worked as a cleaner at the baseball field in downtown Biloxi, earning less than $9,000 a year – well below the federal poverty level for a single person, let alone a mother of two dependent children. Her plea fell on deaf ears: a JCS official told her that unless she paid her fines in full, as well as a $40 monthly fee to JCS for the privilege of having them as her probation officers, she would go to jail – an arrest warrant was duly secured to that effect through the Biloxi municipal court.
Nor was Kennedy’s inability to pay her fines as a result of poverty taken into account by the police officer when he stopped her in July, she said. Discovering the arrest warrant, he promptly put her in handcuffs and took her to a Gulfport jail.
There she was told that unless she came up with all the money – by now the figure had bloated as a result of JCS’s monthly fees to $1,000 – she would stay in jail. And so she did. Kennedy spent the next five days and nights in a holding cell.
“It was filthy,” she told the Guardian. “The toilet wasn’t working, there was no hot water and I was put in the cell with a woman who had stabbed her husband, so I was scared the entire time. For the first three days, they wouldn’t even let me tell my kids where I was.”
Kennedy is the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit lodged on Wednesday with a federal district court in Gulfport against the city of Biloxi, its police department, the municipal court system and the private probation company JCS. The filing, drawn up by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), claims that the agencies collectively conspired to create a modern form of debtors’ prison as a ruse to extract cash from those least able to afford it – the city’s poor.
In a statement, the city of Biloxi said it had not yet seen the lawsuit but insisted that it treated all defendants fairly. “We believe the ACLU is mistaken about the process in Biloxi,” the city said. “The court has used community service in cases where defendants are unable to pay their fines.”
A request for comment from the Guardian to JCS was not immediately answered.
Kennedy v City of Biloxi discloses that between September 2014 and March this year, at least 415 people were put in jail under warrants charging them with failure to pay fines owed to the city. According to court records, none of these 415 people had the money available when they were locked up.
Nusrat Choudhury, an ACLU attorney involved in the lawsuit, called the Biloxi system “a debtors’ prison from the dark ages”. She said that people were being “arrested at traffic stops and in their homes, taken to jail and subjected to a jailhouse shakedown. They are told that unless they pay the full amount they will stay inside for days”.
That’s not just an idle threat. One of the plaintiffs in Kennedy v City of Biloxi, a 51-year-old homeless man named Richard Tillery, spent 30 days in jail for failure to pay fines for misdemeanors that mainly related to his homelessness and poverty. Another of the plaintiffs, Joseph Anderson, 52, who was physically disabled having had four heart attacks, was handcuffed in front of his girlfriend and her son and put in jail for seven nights for failure to pay a $170 police ticket for speeding.
Debtors’ prisons were abolished in the United States almost two centuries ago. The informal practice of incarcerating people who cannot pay fines or fees was also explicitly outlawed by the US supreme court in 1983 in a ruling that stated that to punish an individual for their poverty was a violation of the 14th amendment of the US constitution that ensures equal protection under the law.
In that judgment, the nation’s highest court ordered all authorities across the country to consider an individual’s ability to pay before jailing them or sentencing them to terms of imprisonment. Yet the plaintiffs in the Biloxi lawsuit all found themselves carted straight to jail without any prior legal hearing and with no representation by a lawyer – a fast-tracking to detention that the complaint argues is a flagrant abuse of the supreme court’s ruling, now more than 30 years old.
The pattern of judicial behavior outlined in Kennedy v City of Biloxi is replicated throughout the US as local authorities seeking new revenue sources jail their poor citizens, allegedly as a way of intimidating them to hand over money they do not have. In 2010, the ACLU exposed similar practices they say are akin to modern-day debtors’ prisons in Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio and Washington. Lawsuits have followed, with Georgia and Washington both being sued this year.
At its most extreme, the incarceration of poor debtors can cost them their lives. Last month David Stojcevski, 32, died in a Detroit jail 16 days into a 30-day sentence for failing to pay a $772 fine for careless driving – a sum which he could not afford, his family said. Ray Staten died in 2011 in the same Gulfport jail in which Qumotria Kennedy was held five days after he was locked up for failure to pay a $409 court fine.
There is no nationwide database of the syndrome of pay-or-stay incarceration, but Choudhury said that anecdotal evidence pointed to a growth in the practice in recent years. “We see cities relying increasingly on court fines and fees as a way of generating revenue.”
In Biloxi, a town of 44,000, the amount of money raised is disclosed in the budget of the city’s municipal court general fund. In the 2014-15 budget it was $1.27m; in the 2015-2016 budget it had risen to $1.45m.
Yet census data from the American Community Survey shows that the percentage of the city’s population that lives below the federal poverty level doubled between 2009 and 2013, from 13% to 28%.
That makes people like Qumotria Kennedy increasingly vulnerable to the trap set for them – pay up or go to jail. As a result of her jail time in July, she lost her job at the MGM Park baseball fields having failed to turn up for work and currently she only gets one or two days cleaning a week.
A judge at the municipal court placed her on 12 months’ probation under a new private company – JCS having ceased to operate in Mississippi – and she is still clocking up an additional $40 a month in fees owing to them. Her current burden to the city, rising with every month that passes, stands at $1,251; unless she can find a new, well-paying job and begin to pay off the fines soon, she faces a return to the holding cell.
“The probation person told me if I don’t pay it, I will be arrested again sooner or later,” Kennedy said. “I don’t believe this is right. I just hope other people in the world don’t get treated like I have.”