A surreptitious video in a small-town Georgia court has led to an overhaul of court practices. The video showed the judge threatening to jail traffic violators who could not come up with an immediate payment of fines, reports the New York Times. “You can pay what you have, you can call whoever you need to call, go to an ATM if you need to, do what you need to do,” Judge Richard Diment of Bowdon Municipal Court told a defendant. “Call friends, call family, call your employer. But until you get $300 here tonight, you won't be able to leave.” To a defendant who said he had been unemployed for two years, Diment said, “You're going to have to figure out a way to get this paid, do you understand me? Or you're going to go to jail. One or the other. You understand?” Neither defendant had a lawyer.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that people cannot be jailed for failing to make a payment if they are unable to pay, but advocates for indigent defendants say that in many places, meaningful assessments of ability to pay are rare. In Georgia, poor defendants are supposed to have access to a court-appointed lawyer if they face jail or probation. Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights, an Atlanta-based group that has been fighting “debtors' prison” cases throughout Georgia, said Bowdon was unique only in that Diment was caught on video. In response to a complaint, the city agreed to a host of changes, including advising defendants of their right to counsel before they enter a plea and abolishing the practice of requiring immediate payments under threat of jail.