How Cities Make Money by Fining the Poor

From The New York Times Magazine authored by Mathew Shaer:

“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.’”

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