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It’s Time to End Illegal “Pay-or-Jail” Sentences at the Atlanta Municipal Court

Today, the Southern Center for Human Rights sent a letter to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Atlanta Municipal Court Chief Judge Christopher Portis, calling for an end to the “pay-or-jail” sentences that are regularly imposed on indigent people at the Atlanta Municipal Court.

Pay-or-jail sentences are those in which the Court requires people either to pay a set dollar amount or, if they are unable to pay, to be incarcerated in jail. A 1972 landmark federal appellate case, Frazier v Jordan — which actually originated in the Atlanta Municipal Court — found that an alternative sentencing scheme of $17 dollars or 13 days in jail was unconstitutional as applied to people who could not immediately afford to pay the fine. Despite this precedent, and despite our previous communications putting the Municipal Court on notice that the sentencing practice is illegal, it continues to occur.

In recent months, we have witnessed 68 cases in which judges have imposed a pay-or-jail sentence; these have been imposed almost exclusively on homeless or indigent individuals, and judges routinely fail to inquire into the person’s ability to pay. A few examples (full names have been redacted for privacy):

  • On January 23, 2019, LS pleaded nolo contendre to drinking a can of beer on a city sidewalk. He was given a “fine or time” sentence – either payment of a $75 fine, or 30 days in jail. Unable to pay, he served the jail sentence.
  • On November 8, 2018, MM pleaded guilty to soliciting money from patrons on a MARTA train. She was sentenced to $100 or 3 days in jail. She served the jail sentence.
  • On December 19, 2018, LD pleaded nolo contendre to being a pedestrian on a roadway. He was sentenced to $150 or 5 days in jail. He served the jail sentence.
  • On November 8, 2018, BW pleaded nolo contendre to shoplifting two packs of meat from a store. He was sentenced to $150 or 5 days in jail. He served the jail sentence.

Court documents show that these sentences are recorded as “FINE OR TIME” sentences.

“Atlanta is an outlier in the State of Georgia in its consistent imposition of so-called “fine or time” sentences on people who are homeless and destitute,” said SCHR Managing Attorney Sarah Geraghty.  “The Court violates the bedrock principle of equal protection under law when it jails people only because they don’t have money to buy their release.”

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. In the letter, SCHR requests that the city provide written assurance, by March 20, that the Court has issued a standing order or policy ceasing this practice.