“I can’t — ” Tillman stammered to Ross. “I can’t — ”
Ross explained the system in his court: For every day a defendant stayed in the Alcorn County jail, $25 was knocked off his or her fine. Tillman had been locked up for five days as she awaited her hearing, meaning she had accumulated a credit of $125 toward the overall fine of $255. (The extra $155 was a processing fee.) Her balance on the fine was now $130. Was Tillman able to produce that or call someone who could?
“I can’t,” Tillman responded, so softly that the court recorder entered her response as “inaudible.” She tried to summon something more coherent, but it was too late: The bailiff was tugging at her sleeve. She would be returned to the jail until Oct. 14, she was informed, at which point Ross would consider the fine paid and the matter settled.
That night, Tillman says, she conducted an informal poll of the 20 or so women in her pod at the Alcorn County jail. A majority, she says, were incarcerated for the same reason she was: an inability to pay a fine. Some had been languishing in jail for weeks. The inmates even had a phrase for it: “sitting it out.” Tillman’s face crumpled. “I thought, Because we’re poor, because we’re of a lower class, we aren’t allowed real freedom,” she recalled. “And it was the worst feeling in the world.”
No government agency comprehensively tracks the extent of criminal-justice debt owed by poor defendants, but experts estimate that those fines and fees total tens of billions of dollars. That number is likely to grow in coming years, and significantly: National Public Radio, in a survey conducted with the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Center for State Courts, found that 48 states increased their civil and criminal court fees from 2010 to 2014. And because wealthy and middle-class Americans can typically afford either the initial fee or the services of an attorney, it will be the poor who shoulder the bulk of the burden.
“You think about what we want to define us as Americans: equal opportunity, equal protection under the law,” Mitali Nagrecha, the director of Harvard’s National Criminal Justice Debt Initiative, told me. “But what we’re seeing in these situations is that not only are the poor in the United States treated differently than people with means, but that the courts are actually aggravating and perpetuating poverty.”
Why they do so is in part a matter of economic reality: In areas hit by recession or falling tax revenue, fines and fees help pay the bills. (The costs of housing and feeding inmates can be subsidized by the state.) As the Fines and Fees Justice Center, an advocacy organization based in New York, has documented, financial penalties on the poor are now a leading source of revenue for municipalities around the country. In Alabama, for example, the Southern Poverty Law Center took up the case of a woman who was jailed for missing a court date related to an unpaid utility bill. In Oregon, courts have issued hefty fines to the parents of truant schoolchildren. Many counties around the country engage in civil forfeiture, the seizure of vehicles and cash from people suspected (but not necessarily proven in court) of having broken the law. In Louisiana, pretrial diversion laws empower the police to offer traffic offenders a choice: Pay up quickly, and the ticket won’t go on your record; fight the ticket in court, and you’ll face additional fees.
“What we’ve seen in our research is that the mechanisms vary, depending on the region,” says Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “But they have one thing in common: They use the justice system to wring revenue out of the poorest Americans — the people who can afford it the least.” Aside from taxes, she says, “criminal-justice debt is now a de facto way of funding a lot of American cities.”
The jailing of poor defendants who cannot pay fines — a particularly insidious version of this revenue machine — has been ruled unconstitutional since a trio of Supreme Court cases spanning the 1970s and early 1980s. The first, Williams v. Illinois, involved a petty thief who was forced to remain in prison to pay off a fine, even after he had served his term. The second, Tate v. Short, hinged on a man in Texas named Preston Tate, who was assessed $425 in fines for several traffic violations. Because Tate couldn’t make the payments, a judge sentenced him to 85 days in jail — the amount of time it would take him, at a rate of $5 a day, to pay his entire fine. Tate took his case to the Supreme Court, which found that the punishment violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which requires that the government not discriminate on criteria like race or background. The court found that Tate was imprisoned “solely because of his indigency.”
In a majority opinion for an analogous case from 1983, Bearden v. Georgia, in which a man received probation and a fine when he pleaded guilty to burglary and theft, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor called it “fundamentally unfair” to send him to prison for nonpayment without “considering whether adequate alternative methods of punish[ment]” — like community service or a payment plan — were available. To do otherwise was to deprive a person of his freedom simply because he happened to be poor.
Still, decades after those cases were decided, the practice of jailing people who cannot pay persists, not least because Supreme Court decisions do not always make their way to local courts. “Precedent is one thing,” says Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of Civil Rights Corps, a Washington-based nonprofit. “The way a law is written is one thing. The way a law is actually experienced by poor people and people of color is another.”
Moreover, Karakatsanis argues, jailing poor defendants has proved to be an effective way of raising money. By threatening a defendant with incarceration, a judge is often able to extract cash from a person’s family that might otherwise be difficult to touch. “A typical creditor,” he says, “can’t put you in a steel cage if you can’t come up with the money.”
In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union detailed evidence of what it calls “modern-day ‘debtors’ prisons’ ” — essentially, courts operating in the same way as Judge Ross’s in Corinth — in Georgia, Michigan, Louisiana, Ohio and Washington State. “If you spent a few weeks driving from coast to coast, you might not find similar policies in place in every single county,” Sam Brooke, the deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s economic-justice program, told me. “But every other county? Probably. This is a massive problem, and it’s not confined to the South. It’s national.”
In 2014, in the wake of the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., President Barack Obama’s Justice Department opened two investigations into policing in the city. Among the findings, released the following spring, was evidence that the city had been routinely jailing residents for failure to pay criminal-justice-related debt and that “the court’s practices impose unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American individuals.” In 2016, the Justice Department issued what is known as a “dear colleague” letter, reminding courts that they are obligated to take into consideration a defendant’s financial standing before levying fines. Although not legally binding, the letter was met with approval from many civil rights activists, as was the willingness of states including New Hampshire and Illinois to proactively train judges and clerks on the pertinent legal precedents.
The “dear colleague” letter, along with two dozen others, has since been rescinded by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who argued that his predecessors overstepped their bounds and that it should be left to Congress to arrive at solutions through legislation. “Last month, I ended the longstanding abuse of issuing rules by simply publishing a letter or posting a web page,” Sessions said in a statement in December 2017. Any guidance, he went on, that “improperly goes beyond what is provided for in statutes or regulation should not be given effect.”
But Congress has been slow to act — no current major bill addresses the jailing of poor defendants. “At this point, I’m convinced that sunlight — a lot of it — is going to have to be the solution,” Brooke told me.
In recent years, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other organizations, including the A.C.L.U. and Karakatsanis’s Civil Rights Corps, have been filing class-action lawsuits against dozens of courts across the South and Midwest and West, arguing that local courts, in jailing indigent defendants, are violating the Supreme Court rulings laid down in Williams, Tate and Bearden. The lawsuits work: As a settlement is negotiated, a judge typically agrees to stop jailing new inmates for unpaid fines or fees. “No one wants to admit they’ve knowingly acted in this manner,” says Brooke, who partnered with Karakatsanis on lawsuits in Alabama and filed several elsewhere in the South. “So they tend to settle quickly.” The trouble is locating the offending courts.
In January 2017, two S.P.L.C. staff members, Micah West, a senior staff attorney, and Sara Wood, a senior paralegal, drove from the organization’s headquarters in Montgomery, Ala., to Southern Mississippi, to look into claims that the state was suspending — without due process — the licenses of thousands of residents for failure to pay overdue traffic tickets. For a couple of days, West and Wood made visits to various D.M.V.s and court offices. But even when they could get someone to talk to them, the clerk was sometimes unable or unwilling to share any details of individual suspensions. “Eventually, I was like, ‘All right, let’s save ourselves some time,’ ” West recalled. “So we got out a map, and we started calling every place on it.” One morning, his finger landed on the city of Corinth.
A Municipal Court staff member picked up on the third ring. “Could you answer a question for me?” West asked the woman. “I’m wondering what would happen if I was unable to pay a speeding ticket. Would I lose my driving license?”
“What do you mean?” she responded. And then: “You’d go to jail.”
Corinth occupies an important place in Mississippi history. During the Civil War, the South lost two bloody battles trying to defend the rail lines that bisected the city, which Confederate leaders regarded as second only to Richmond, their capital, in terms of strategic importance. Today the rails remain, as do the battlefield and a handful of grand antebellum homes, but driving around the area, you get a sense that the place has been hollowed out. As of 2016, a quarter of the 14,600 residents, 70 percent of whom are white, lived at or below the federal poverty line (about $12,000 in annual income for an individual).
Drug use is endemic — primarily opioids and methamphetamine. So, too, are the hallmarks of a specific kind of rural, Southern poverty: stray dogs in the streets, sun-blasted trailers that seem to be sinking back into the earth, yards occupied by rusting school buses and old sedans. “You grow up around here, and you have two options,” one resident told me. “You can either get the hell out, go on up to Tupelo or wherever. Or you stay and try to figure out a way to live without having the cops on you all the time. Which sure ain’t easy.”
Corinth’s infrastructure runs so leanly as to be almost invisible: There are no public buses, and Alcorn County recently announced that it would stop funding the local railroad museum. Tax rates in Corinth have dropped slightly in recent years, while the percentage of revenue generated by criminal-justice-related debt has grown. According to the annual audit submitted by Corinth to the state, in fiscal year 2017, the year Jamie Tillman was arrested for public intoxication, general fund revenues for the city were just $10.8 million. Total revenue for the year was $20.3 million, half of which came from taxes; close to $7 million came from “intergovernmental revenue,” or grants and funds from the state and federal authorities. And approximately $623,000 came from what the city defines as “fines and forfeitures.”
The Corinth city clerk declined to answer questions about the breakdown of the budget or how the revenue from fines compares with those of neighboring towns, referring questions to the city attorney, Wendell Trapp, who did not respond to emails seeking comment. But a report completed in 2017 by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights offers some answers. Combing Census Bureau data and city audit documents, the commission noted that of nearly 4,600 American municipalities with populations above 5,000, the median received less than 1 percent of their revenue from fines and fees. But a sizable number of cities, like Doraville, Ga., or Saint Ann, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, have reported fines-and-fees revenue amounting to 10 percent or more of total municipal income.
Corinth’s revenue from fines in 2017 was 5.7 percent of its general fund revenues, putting it — if not quite at the Saint Ann level — at the high end when compared with the municipalities in the Commission on Civil Rights’s report. When I sent Joanna Weiss, of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a copy of the 2017 Corinth audit, she noted that this would be dismaying enough in itself. “But you can also see,” she added, “that the biggest expenditure, by far, for the city of Corinth is public safety” — including court and police services, or the very people extracting the fines.
In 2017, Micah West and Sara Wood of the S.P.L.C. drove to Corinth to open an investigation into the Municipal Court, with an eye toward later filing a lawsuit — the most effective way, they believed, to halt Judge John C. Ross’s jailing of low-income defendants. During court sessions, they would often walk down the hall to the clerk’s office, where defendants were permitted to use a landline phone to make a final plea for the cash that would set them free. The space amounted to an earthly purgatory: Secure the money, and you were saved. Fail, and you’d be sent to jail. “All around us, people would be crying or yelling, getting more and more desperate,” Wood recalled.
That October, she watched a 59-year-old man named Kenneth Lindsey enter the office, his lean arms hanging lank by his side, his face gaunt and pale. Lindsey had been in court for driving with an expired registration, but he hadn’t been able to afford the fines: He was suffering from hepatitis C and liver cancer, and he had spent the very last of his savings on travel to Tupelo for a round of chemotherapy. Until his next state disability check arrived, he was broke. “Can you help?” Lindsey whispered into the phone.
A few seconds of silence passed. “All right, then. Thanks anyway.”
Finally, around 1:45 p.m., Lindsey managed to get through to his sister. She barely had $100 herself, but she promised to drive it over after her shift was through.
Wood caught up with Lindsey in the parking lot later that day, and after identifying herself, asked if he would consider being interviewed by the S.P.L.C. “I don’t know,” Lindsey said, studying the ground. But soon enough, he called Wood to say he had changed his mind. “I’ve been paying these sons of bitches all my life,” he told her. “It’s time someone did something about it.”
Traveling around Corinth, Wood found that nearly everyone she met had experience with the local courts or could refer her to someone who did. Soon her voice mail inbox filled with messages from people who wanted to share their stories. The callers were diverse in terms of age and race. They were black and white; they were young and old. But they shared with Kenneth Lindsey a precipitous relationship to rock-bottom poverty. If not completely destitute, they were close — a part-time job away from homelessness, a food-stamp card away from going hungry.
There was the man who couldn’t read and hadn’t said a word until he was 5 years old. Not long after his 35th birthday, he was arrested for public drunkenness. When he got in touch with Wood, he had been in jail for three days, unable to decipher the charging documents filed against him or figure out a way to access his disability check — his lone source of income.
There was the woman, Latonya James, with a daughter who had been intentionally scalded with boiling water by her stepmother as an infant; now a teenager ashamed of the scars that covered her chest and neck, the girl had stopped going to her high school. The city charged James, then living in a home without electricity or running water, with truancy, on her daughter’s behalf, and Judge Ross ordered her to pay $100 of the $163 fine or go to jail. (She managed to scrape together the money.)
And there was Glenn Chastain, who owed $1,200 for expired vehicle tags — and, because he had missed one hearing, was denied the chance to pay a partial fine. Chastain spent 48 days at the Alcorn County Correctional Facility. He said he was in a unit occupied by accused rapists and murderers and was beaten by inmates until his ribs were bruised and his face was a mask of blood. He smiled to show me where one of his teeth had been knocked out. (Alcorn County authorities offered no comment on the fight.)
Starting in October, with West in Corinth and his boss, Sam Brooke, in Montgomery, the S.P.L.C. set about drafting the lawsuit, which accused Ross of “wealth-based detention.” The Corinth court had done more than violate the Constitution, the attorneys wrote. It had broken state law, which says that “incarceration may be employed only after the court has conducted a hearing and examined the reasons for nonpayment and finds, on the record, that the defendant was not indigent or could have made payment but refused to do so.” Ross, they asserted, had never bothered to ask for that information.
A few months ago, I found Kenneth Lindsey standing on the porch of his home in Corinth, dressed in faded jeans and a shirt that was mostly unbuttoned, exposing the thin gold chain around his neck. The house had belonged to his mother, he confessed, and he hadn’t messed around much with the decorating since she died — the place, a converted double-wide trailer, was full of old family photos. He plummeted into a reclining armchair with a sigh.
Theoretically, he explained, his liver cancer was in remission, although he acknowledged he had no concrete proof. In the time since his first conversation with Wood, he had been back and forth to jail two more times, and he had been to the hospital in Tupelo just once. “I would estimate that I’ve spent a quarter of the last year behind bars,” he told me. Could he calculate exactly what he owed? “$10,000?” he responded. “$11,000?” The way he said it, it might as well have been a million dollars. “I ain’t never going to pay it down,” he said. “Never, ever. I’m going to be paying it down until I die.”
Rummaging in his bedroom closet, he produced a cardboard box, which he upended onto his bed. A blizzard of documents spilled out: tickets and warnings and second warnings and court summons. I picked one up at random. It dated back to 2005. “Now you’re getting the idea,” Lindsey said.
Nearly every one of Lindsey’s court fees related, in one way or another, to his vehicle: expired registration fees, expired driver’s licenses. He couldn’t pay for the right paperwork or pay down his fines, but he couldn’t stop driving either, because driving was how he got to the auto body shop where he picked up the odd shift. Hitchhiking scared him, and he didn’t want to bother his friends more than he had to. “My pride gets in my way a lot,” Lindsey told me. “They’re not embarrassed by you wanting their help, but you are.”
We returned to the living room. Lindsey propped open the door. It wasn’t yet bug season; a fragrant breeze blew through the room. “Maybe they should investigate why they end up picking on the same damn people all the time,” he said. “Why is it us? Tell me that: Why is it us?”
In early December 2017, the S.P.L.C. and the MacArthur Justice Center filed their lawsuit against Corinth. That same month, the city ordered the jail emptied of all inmates incarcerated for nonpayment of fines. “There was no explanation,” says Brian Howell, one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, who was then incarcerated, sitting out $1,250 in fines and court costs for three unpaid traffic tickets. “It was just, ‘All right, get up and go.’ ”
Howell is 29, with watery blue eyes and freckled cheeks. Years ago, he was struck by a drunken driver while riding his motorcycle; he lost one leg and suffered extensive nerve and spinal damage. It is hard for him to walk, let alone play with his three children, without the aid of crutches. But the guards at the jail wouldn’t lend him a pair. Nor would they give him a ride home. The best they would offer was a lift across the street, to the gas station. From there, Howell began scooting on his buttocks along the side of the road, using his hands to haul himself forward. Soon his forearms were sore, his fingertips bloody. A police cruiser pulled up alongside him. “The guy looks over, and he just busts out laughing,” Howell recalled last spring. Howell is extremely soft-spoken, and when he told me what the cop said to him, I was certain I’d misheard. He repeated it more loudly: “He said, ‘Hell, I thought you was a damn dog.’ ”
Later that day, as a rare early-spring snowstorm settled over Alcorn County, I drove across town to the modest home that serves as the offices and personal residence of Judge John C. Ross. The roads were empty, with all local schools and most local businesses shut, and as I pulled into Ross’s driveway, my rental car noisily skidded; by the time I’d shifted into park, the judge was at the door, a hand raised in greeting.
“Come in, come in,” he said, without asking what I wanted. When I told him I was a reporter, he smiled broadly. “Well, you’ll have to stay at least until you’re all warmed up.”
He led me down a hallway, past a framed drawing of the first Battle of Corinth — he found it in an old edition of Harper’s Weekly, he explained — and into the sun-washed living room that doubles as his office. On the shelves around us were history books and leather-bound novels by Hemingway. “I was an English major in college,” Ross said. He guided me to a chair. “Sit, sit, sit. Let’s talk.”
Ross was not the only target of the lawsuit — the city of Corinth was named, too — and he had received specific instructions from attorneys not to directly discuss it. Still, there were things the judge felt he could say: Both entities, he said, had consented to put a temporary hold on the policy of jailing indigent defendants, and incarceration in many cases would be replaced with payment plans or community-service opportunities. “I intend to abide by that settlement,” he said.
He spoke of his time at Ole Miss, his matriculation into the university’s law school and his decades in private practice. He talked about those decades in a way that made clear he regarded his more recent stint as a Municipal Court judge as something other than the crowning achievement of his legal career. But he had accepted it out of a sense of duty to the place he grew up. “Outside of school and an early job, I’ve never lived anywhere else but Corinth,” he said. “I love the people, and I love the place. And I don’t think I’ll ever leave.” He sometimes worked as an administrator for the cemetery across the street, and in retirement, that’s where he planned to spend some of his days.
Ross was sitting with his back to a large picture window, and behind him, through the glass, wet snow was falling on the oak tree in his backyard. As politely as he had shown me in, he showed me out again — he and his friends had plans to visit New Orleans that weekend, and there was packing to be done. As I shook Ross’s hand, I was reminded of the taxonomy of municipal judges that Sam Brooke of the S.P.L.C. had laid out for me. “I’d split them into camps,” Brooke said. “The first are the ones that respect the law. The second are the vindictive ones, who see every defendant as a bad person in need of punishment. But the biggest group are judges who are part of the retail industry of processing a whole lot of people. They’re just doing what the judges before them did.”
In July, a U.S. district judge finalized the temporary policy Corinth and the S.P.L.C. had agreed to regarding indigent defendants. “Nothing in this says poor people don’t have to obey the law or pay their fines,” Cliff Johnson of the MacArthur Justice Center told The Associated Press at the time. “They just get additional time to pay their fines and don’t have to go to jail because they’re poor.”
In June, Ross announced his retirement; this fall, he was replaced on the municipal bench by Rebecca Phipps, a judge who worked for 40 years as an attorney in Corinth, and who was briefed on the terms of the settlement before accepting the job. After lobbying by the S.P.L.C. and the A.C.L.U., both houses of the State Legislature unanimously passed a bill prohibiting any resident from being jailed for a failure to pay either court costs or fines. The bill went into effect in July of last year.
But the modest progress in Mississippi has not necessarily been mirrored in other states — in recent months, attorneys in Arkansas and Pennsylvania have filed lawsuits accusing a judge and the Commonwealth of facilitating “debtors’ prisons,” and in Missouri, Ferguson officials are still fighting a class-action suit first filed in 2015. In the few places where one aspect of the fines-and-fees apparatus has been eliminated, that does not mean poor residents are suddenly free of towering amounts of criminal-justice debt. Nor does it mean they will not continue to come in regular contact with law enforcement, which remains robustly subsidized even as other city services go underfunded. Kenneth Lindsey, for example, was arrested last spring for missing a hearing related to unpaid fines. The judge at the Alcorn County Justice Court sent him to jail for 12 days when he couldn’t pay.
“They come out of jail with absolutely nothing but more problems, and then it just keeps on going and going, and it’s like they’re bound, and they feel like they can’t escape,” Andrea Hurst, Glenn Chastain’s girlfriend, told me about her boyfriend and others who find themselves in similar circumstances. “Their license gets taken, and hey, you get pulled over one day, because the cop knows you got no license, and then back to jail again. You just lost that job again.”
Not long ago, I met Jamie Tillman for lunch at the Corinth Cracker Barrel. After leaving jail, she explained, she started staying in a friend’s trailer, but she and the friend had a falling out, and now she was back to drifting from one place to the next. A shelter for battered women down in Tupelo, the bedroom of an acquaintance, the streets, the forest. She looked wan and tired. Her hands fluttered as she spoke.
“I’ve been waiting to get together enough money for some mood stabilizers,” she told me. “Because if I can get stable, I can start showing people that I’m fit to have my kid back. That I’m the person I know I can be.”
She had a part-time job cleaning a couple of houses in the next town over, and a plan: She could use her birth certificate, the only official document she still possessed, to obtain a Social Security card, and with her Social Security card, she would be able to get a driver’s license and then a bank account. “I’ll pay off the rest of what I owe to the courts” — a few thousand dollars — “and then I can start saving like a real person,” she said.
We walked out to the parking lot, so she could show me the entirety of her belongings, stored for now in a plastic laundry hamper in the back of a friend’s car: three changes of clothes, a hair dryer and various envelopes, many bearing the seal of the Alcorn County Court.
As she dug through the hamper in search of her birth certificate, which she was now worried she had misplaced, a sheet of paper fluttered out. It was inscribed, in cursive, with a poem titled “Money,” by the American writer Richard Armour. Tillman couldn’t remember who gave it to her — she thought it might have been a friend from jail. Clearing her throat, she started to read aloud: “Workers earn it, spendthrifts burn it, bankers lend it.”
Then she sighed and skipped to the last line: “I could use it.”