In at least 1,000 courts in more than a dozen states, people convicted of misdemeanors, and sometimes even traffic infractions, often face a difficult reality if they're poor and unable to pay fines and court costs on the spot. They are placed under the supervision of for-profit probation companies where they may find themselves snared in a cycle of growing debt and punishment. The practice has spurred many lawsuits on behalf of people who, unable to pay, struggle to stay out of jail. Here are four of their stories:
When Fred Robinson was convicted of two misdemeanor marijuana charges in 2011 — but was unable to pay $2,500 in fines and court costs — a judge placed him on 11 months and 29 days of probation. More than four years later, Robinson is still trying to get out from under.
"I can't afford my medicine to stay healthy and stay out of here," he says, sitting up in bed at Saint Thomas Rutherford Hospital in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, during a recent stay for difficulty breathing. "And they've still got me on this thing for non-payment."
Robinson, 31, used to work in the kitchen at a chain restaurant. For years, he has struggled with health problems, including ulcerative colitis and cirrhosis, which eventually forced him to quit. He depends on a $750 monthly disability check and gave up his apartment to move in with his sister.
Robinson says he reported to the PCC probation office weekly, but couldn't pay its fees and what he owed the court. His probation officer reported this as a violation, and Robinson was jailed in 2012, then saw his supervision extended to 23 months. Last September, he was again charged with a violation.
Affidavits filed by the probation company in 2012 and 2015 list his only violation as failure to pay court costs, fines and probation fees. In December, a federal judge barred the county from jailing people solely for non-payment, but he remains on probation.
"It doesn't make no sense for 11 months and 29 days to turn into five years for nothing — or for money," he says.
Clifford Hayes has lupus and diabetes. He's also destitute. And for nearly a decade, he's been bouncing around the private probation system.
His first encounter came in 2007 when he was arrested twice in Georgia for misdemeanor driving offenses, including drunken driving and using the wrong lane. According to court records, he was placed on five years' probation.
In 2013, he went to the local sheriff's office for a background check so he could spend the night in a Salvation Army shelter in Augusta, Georgia. Instead, he wound up in jail. Hayes didn't know that five years earlier, Sentinel Offender Services, a private probation company, had obtained a warrant because he had not kept up with his fines and fees imposed in the earlier cases, according to his lawyer, Jack Long.
Less than a week after Hayes was arrested, a judge gave him a choice: Pay $854 or serve eight months in jail.
Neither is a realistic option, Long says. Hayes is too sick to work, he adds, and barely gets by, renting a room in a run-down boarding house, relying on a $720 monthly disability payment for rent, medicine and food.
Jailing him doesn't make sense, either, Long says, because an eight-month sentence would cost taxpayers more than $11,500, not including medicine. "Jail is being used as a collection tool, free of charge to the private probation company," he argues.
Long contends Hayes should have been ordered to perform community service. He's now suing Sentinel, claiming its practices are unconstitutional. He was able to secure Hayes' release pending a trial.
A lawyer representing Sentinel did not respond to requests for comment; a company official said in a statement that Sentinel does nothing to exploit people regardless of their income.
Hayes says private probation is "degrading to people.... They know you can't afford it, but they want you to keep paying, paying, paying. ... It makes you feel helpless."
Vera Cheeks failed to stop fully at a stop sign. She pleaded guilty after being ticketed in Bainbridge, Georgia.
In court in late 2014, she says she told the judge she couldn't afford the $135 ticket. She explained she was living part-time in Florida and not working while she cared for a terminally ill father. The judge placed her on three months' probation.
Cheeks, 55, says a Red Hills Community Probation officer at the courthouse that day told her she'd have to raise $50 to leave or face a 30-day jail sentence. Her fiance, who was with her, pawned Cheeks' engagement ring. While waiting for him, she says, she watched a steady stream of probationers filing in from the courtroom, handing over cash or making calls desperately trying to raise money.
"I kept telling people this is a sham," she says.
Later, after reading about similar cases, she called the Southern Center for Human Rights. Cheeks was part of a lawsuit filed by the center that claimed, among other things, that Red Hills was illegally detaining people. The company, which closed last year, has denied any wrongdoing.
When Cheeks went public with her story, a donor paid her ticket, wiping the slate clean.
Cheeks is glad she spoke out.
"I just knew in my gut — you're going to put me in jail for 30 days because I'm poor and I don't have $50? That's the part that I said was wrong and unfair," she says. "That means you'd put half the doggone community in jail."
When police in Biloxi, Mississippi, pulled over a car in which Qumotria Kennedy was a passenger last July, she knew her time was up as soon as the officer asked her for identification.
Three years earlier, Kennedy had been charged with driving without insurance and on a suspended license. In that earlier case, the judge placed her on a year's probation, requiring payments of $140 a month. Kennedy, who earned about $200 a week cleaning motel rooms, says she stopped reporting to the for-profit probation firm after an officer told her if she didn't pay she could be jailed.
Now, handing over her ID after her friend was stopped for running a stop sign, Kennedy says, "I knew it was coming. I just didn't know how long I would be in jail, and that was my concern because I do have two kids."
In jail, guards found a joint in her purse, and she was charged with possession. After being held five days, she lost her job for not showing up. A judge added another year of probation, requiring payments of $255 a month.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the city and probation firm Judicial Correction Services on behalf of Kennedy and two others, and the sides are negotiating. JCS spokesman said the company does not comment on specific litigation.
Kennedy hopes a resolution will keep her out of jail — "because I can't afford to be in jail."