The American Civil Liberties Union is suing Lexington County to end what the organization calls a “modern-day debtors’ prison” that too often jails people who can’t afford to pay court fines and fees.
The federal lawsuit was filed Thursday on behalf of five Midlands residents who served 20 to 63 days in the county jail since August because they were unable to pay amounts ranging from $680 to $2,163, according to the lawsuit.
Those fines and fees were imposed for offenses such as driving with a suspended license, operating a vehicle without insurance and a minor assault.
The legal action seeks to end what the ACLU said are unwritten practices in magistrate court that punish more than 1,000 people yearly for inability to pay promptly. Those longstanding customs create “persistent, widespread and routine arrest and incarceration” for low-income persons dealing with traffic tickets and misdemeanor offenses, the lawsuit.
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Defendants sometimes spend weeks behind bars without being told a challenge to their jailing is possible and legal assistance may be available to do so, it said.
Magistrates are supposed to consider ability to pay before sending someone to jail for nonpayment.
But the nine county magistrates sometimes fail to adequately discuss arrangements to pay what’s owed in installments and to extend deadlines when merited instead of sending people to jail, the lawsuit says.
Lexington County spokesman Harrison Cahill said the county would have no immediate response to the allegations.
The challenge is part of a national effort to change how local courts pursue nonpayment of fines and fees, according to Susan Dunn, executive director of the state ACLU chapter. One goal of filing the lawsuit is to set the stage for an overhaul of what commonly happens across South Carolina, she said.
“It’s not that Lexington is absolutely the worst,” Dunn said. “It seems a fair representative.”
The ACLU complaint comes as Lexington County officials look for ways to reduce overcrowding at a jail built to hold 599 inmates but that now holds nearly 800.
Much of the problem can be solved by speeding up effort to assure faster release of inmates charged with minor crimes and traffic violations, officials said. “We’re all on board and heading in the right direction,” said 11th Circuit Solicitor Rick Hubbard of Lexington.
All five people involved in the legal challenge still face the threat of returning to jail because they are struggling to pay what’s owed, a task made harder for four who lost jobs while behind bars, the lawsuit said. A $40 application fee required of people who want to consult a county public defender also should be abolished, it said.
Revenue collected in magistrate courts totaled $1.4 million in the fiscal year that ended last June 30, the lawsuit said. That’s 1 percent of county spending for that period, records show.
County officials should add more public defenders so that indigents charged with traffic offenses and minor crimes can have free legal representation, it said.
No estimate of how many more lawyers would be needed or the cost of hiring them is included in the lawsuit. There are 15 public defender positions now, officials said.
Officials named in the lawsuit are Chief Magistrate Gary Reinhart, Associate Chief Magistrate Rebecca Adams, Public Defender Rob Madsen and Sheriff Jay Koon.
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483