Atlanta Municipal Court building Atlanta Municipal Court building (Photo: John Disney/ ALM)

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.

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. The letter threatens legal action if the practice isn’t ended.

“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.

The mayor’s communications office and the chief judge did not immediately respond Monday to emails seeking comment.

The cases are often “explicitly recorded in court documents” as “FINE OR TIME” sentences, and the sentencing judges don’t ask about the person’s ability to pay, the letter says. Such sentences “appear to be almost exclusively visited upon the homeless and destitute.”

The Southern Center in September previously wrote to Portis in September, and copied the mayor and lawyers for the city, warning that the practice is illegal and urging the court to end it, the letter says.

In recent months, Geraghty wrote, the Southern Center has observed at least 59 cases when judges imposed such sentences. Those included the following people who pleaded no contest to the charges against them:

  • A man charged with drinking beer on a city sidewalk who was sentenced to pay a $75 fine or spend 30 days in jail;
  • A man accused of being disruptive at a hospital who was charged with disorderly conduct and was sentenced to pay a $200 fine or spend 10 days in jail;
  • A woman charged with disorderly conduct and being disorderly while under the influence who was sentenced to pay a $200 fine or spend 10 days in jail;
  • A man charged with being a pedestrian on a roadway who was sentenced to pay a $150 fine or spend five days in jail;
  • A man charged with urinating on a city sidewalk who was sentenced to pay a $150 fine or spend two days in jail;
  • A man accused of shoplifting two packs of meat who was sentenced to pay a $150 fine or spend five days in jail; and
  • A woman accused of soliciting money on a train who was sentenced to pay $100 or spend three days in jail.

Many of them were homeless at the time and couldn’t afford to pay the fines, so they all spent time in jail, the letter says.

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 letter asks for written assurance by March 20 that the court has issued an order to stop the practice and also to immediately take steps to release anyone currently in custody on such a sentence.

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