Johnny Gibbs has been trying to get a valid driver’s license for 20 years, but he just can’t afford it.
To punish him for high school truancy in 1999, Tennessee officials told him he would not be able to legally drive until he turned 21. He drove anyway, incurring two tickets and racking up more than $1,000 in fines and fees.
Like other low-income defendants in similar situations across the country, Gibbs couldn’t pay and ended up serving jail time and probation. That incurred another cost: a monthly supervision fee to a private probation company.
Rather than risk another arrest, Gibbs, now 38, decided to quit driving, which he said makes it nearly impossible to work. He said he spent several years living in a motel room with his mother, his disabled father and his sister before they all became homeless. In August, the family found housing in a dilapidated trailer, miles from the nearest town or food source.
“Honestly, I feel like I’m being punished for being poor,” Gibbs said.
For years, state and city officials in the U.S. — unwilling to raise taxes — have steadily increased their reliance on court fines and fees to balance budgets. Poor defendants who can’t pay are jailed, clogging local lockups with people who in many cases have not been convicted of any crime and putting others on a probation that doesn’t end until all debts are erased.
A growing number of legal groups and nonprofit organizations throughout the U.S. are challenging these practices, but they continue — despite a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found it unconstitutional to incarcerate defendants too poor to pay fines.