ATLANTA -- Judges in Atlanta illegally impose "pay-or-jail" sentences on poor people, requiring them to pay a set fine or, if they're unable to pay, to spend time in jail, according to a legal advocacy group.
A court spokeswoman disputed that, saying people aren't required to choose between paying a fine or time in jail.
The Southern Center for Human Rights on Monday sent a letter to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Atlanta Municipal Court Chief Judge Christopher Portis saying that imposing such sentences on people who cannot afford to pay violates the U.S. Constitution.
"Pay-or-jail sentences imposed on homeless people who clearly cannot pay are not only unconstitutional, they undermine the integrity of Atlanta's criminal legal system," the letter from Southern Center attorney Sarah Geraghty says.
Court spokeswoman Tialer Maxwell said in an email that all those cited in the Southern Center's letter were represented by a lawyer, except for one who declined a public defender's services. All seven were sentenced through negotiated pleas, she said.
"These are plea deals where the defendant, defendant's lawyer, and the prosecutor discuss and agree on the terms of punishment, before the defendant goes in front of the judge," Maxwell wrote, adding that a judge can then accept the deal as presented if the terms are fair and appropriate.
Geraghty rejected that argument.
"I don't accept the court's attempt to throw the public defenders under the bus," she said, calling it the judge's responsibility to impose a lawful sentence.
"Public defenders are working hard to achieve the best results, but they are working within the confines of a court system that has long sanctioned this archaic sentencing practice," Geraghty said.
Maxwell also wrote that when deciding whether a plea deal is fair, a judge must consider the defendant and his or her history. The seven people referenced in the Southern Center's letter had more than 300 total arrests between them, she wrote.
The fact that people have prior arrests for similar offenses doesn't make the sentences legal, Geraghty wrote in the letter.
In recent months, Geraghty wrote, the Southern Center observed at least 59 cases when judges imposed "pay-or-jail" sentences. Those included the following people who, the letter says, pleaded no contest to the charges against them and were given a choice between a fine and jail time:
— a man charged with drinking beer on a city sidewalk: $75 fine or 30 days in jail;
— a man accused of being disruptive at a hospital who was charged with disorderly conduct: $200 fine or 10 days in jail;
— a woman charged with disorderly conduct and being disorderly while under the influence: $200 fine or 10 days in jail;
— a man charged with being a pedestrian on a roadway: $150 fine or five days in jail;
— a man charged with urinating on a city sidewalk: $150 fine or two days in jail;
— a man accused of shoplifting two packs of meat: $150 fine or five days in jail;
— and a woman accused of soliciting money on a train: $100 fine or three days in jail.
Some were homeless and couldn't afford the fines, so they all went to jail, the letter says. The judges didn't ask about their ability to pay, the letter says.
The cases are often "explicitly recorded in court documents" as "FINE OR TIME" sentences, the letter says. Maxwell wrote that that is simply a code courtroom staff use to show how a case has been resolved.
Maxwelll wrote that the defendants in the cases cited by the Southern Center "were sentenced to fine and time, not 'or,'" she wrote.
Transcripts from two of the hearings provided by the Southern Center show that the judge in each case said he was imposing a fine and a jail sentence. But then the judge says the jail time "will be suspended upon paying the fine. The fine will be suspended upon serving the time."
That makes it clear, Geraghty said, that these are "pay-or-jail" sentences.
A federal appeals court ruling from 1972 in a case originating in the Atlanta Municipal Court "unequivocally prohibits the Municipal Court from requiring an indigent defendant to pay a fine or serve a specified number of days in jail," the letter says.
The Southern Center previously wrote to Portis in September warning that the practice is illegal and urging the court to end it, the letter says.
Monday's letter asks for written assurance by March 20 that the court has issued an order to stop the practice and also for immediate steps to release anyone currently in custody on such a sentence. Otherwise, the letter threatens legal action.