In Small-Town Georgia, A Broken Taillight Can Lead to Spiraling Debt
This courtroom artist’s illustration depicts Lynn Davis being sentenced to five years’ probation for traffic misdemeanors in February 2018 in Clayton Municipal Court in Georgia. “Lynn Davis” is a pseudonym. The illustration is based on Davis’ account and a reporter’s recollection of the courtroom. Carole Kabrin
Reforms to curb predatory private probation haven’t worked.
On a dark, damp February morning in 2018, a police officer escorted Lynn Davis to a pew in Clayton Municipal Court, a tiny city court tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Georgia. Davis was “freezing to death” in nothing but a jail-issued orange jumpsuit, she recollects this February. There was a distinct smell of mildew in the air as the night’s heavy rain seeped into the aging building. The faded lettering on its facade, “CLAYTON ELEMENTARY SCHOOL,” served as a reminder of its previous function.
In addition to the court, the building is now the headquarters of the Clayton Police Department.
Davis, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, had been arrested 11 days prior to that court date. She had been “bluelighted” — a term many in the 2,000-person town use to refer to frequent stops by local police — after leaving work on another rainy morning. The police had pulled her and a friend over in a “bad part of town,” about 2 miles west of Clayton’s tourist center. Despite the picturesque mountain setting and bustling downtown, Clayton’s poverty rate is 20.4%, almost double the national average, per the 2020 census. The predominantly white, rural community’s employment rate was marked at 41.2%, about a third lower than Georgia’s statewide rate of 59.2%.
Davis was not arrested for any new charges that day. Instead, she was arrested on a failure to appear warrant for a series of minor traffic offenses, accumulated over nearly 10 years. Upon her arrest, Davis was taken to the jail for Rabun County, the surrounding jurisdiction of about 17,000. The facility was so overcrowded that many were sleeping on “boats,” plastic beds on the floor, she says. Davis was told her prior failure to appear in court made her ineligible to bond out, forcing her to sit in jail to await the city’s next court session nearly two weeks later.
Clayton Municipal Court meets only once a month, on second Tuesdays.
I was not present for Davis’ appearance, but I have observed Clayton’s court proceedings on multiple occasions over the past three years, first as a legal investigator and then as a reporter for In These Times. In the same room as the city council’s meeting chambers, Judge Robert Sneed, a man of about 60 with a quick smile and a laid-back demeanor, presides from a raised dais adorned with name plaques for the town’s mayor and city council members. To the judge’s right sits the clerk of court, wearing a Clayton Police shirt that signals her dual role as clerk of the Clayton Police Department.
Mitch Baker, the court’s prosecutor (referred to as a “solicitor”) often sits in a room adjacent to the courtroom, where he negotiates plea agreements with lawyers or defendants, many of whom represent themselves. Baker also serves as Clayton’s city attorney, supervising the city’s budgetary and legal responsibilities.
Finally, inconspicuous behind the dais, in the far corner of the room, sits John Roberts, president and primary probation officer of Capital Probation Management Inc., a private probation company that contracts with Clayton to supervise all city court probation. Davis had waited all morning to be seen by the judge, she tells me. As is common practice in small courts, those with hired attorneys see the judge first; Davis couldn’t afford a lawyer, nor was she offered a court-appointed public defender, she says. Next come the walk-in defendants, those who had received tickets with a summons (but without an arrest) or had been able, unlike Davis, to bond out of jail before their court date.
After more than a week in jail, with uncertain job prospects at the restaurant where she worked — not to mention the growing loss of income from so many missed shifts — “I just wanted to go home,” Davis tells me. And she worried she would receive more time in jail if she said or did the wrong thing.
Davis finally stood in front of Judge Sneed for five minutes, “at the most,” she says. In those five minutes, she received five years’ probation.
Davis pleaded guilty or no contest on all five of her charges, and Judge Sneed sentenced Davis to the maximum probation term, 12 months, on each traffic offense— a broken taillight, an improper tag, a failure to change her address within 60 days of moving, an insurance lapse, and driving with a suspended license. Some of these offenses dated back to 2009.
Georgia is one of only 12 states that treats all traffic tickets as criminal misdemeanors, according to Priya Sarathy Jones, national policy and campaigns director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national advocacy organization that tracks these trends. And while speeding tickets, for example, are fairly universal, broken taillights and expired tags are offenses deeply associated with poverty, Sarathy Jones tells me. Those with the means to fix their taillight or pay for their insurance can avoid nonmoving traffic violations altogether, she says.
Beyond the burden of traffic fines for those who already can’t pay, Georgia’s criminalization of traffic violations allows each ticket to have a maximum penalty of 12 months in jail — or on probation. Multiple sentences in criminal courts often run concurrently, meaning the sentences are served all at once. But Judge Sneed stacked Davis’ sentences into “consecutive” 12-month probation terms, so her five 12-month sentences would be served back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back.
Judge Sneed did not respond to requests for comment from In These Times.
A probation sentence is no trivial thing. It is a suspended jail sentence, which means it can be revoked, or converted to jail time, even for technical violations such as missing a meeting with a probation officer. Davis also owed $2,266 in court fines, an amount she could not afford to pay. Most importantly, Davis may not have been sentenced to probation at all had she been able to pay her fine in full on her court date. In January and February 2018, of the 205 defendants with non-DUI traffic tickets, no one who had paid their tickets (clearly noted in court files) received probation. All 20 people with non-DUI traffic cases and no note of payment received probation. And even for DUI cases, all six defendants noted as paying their fines in court avoided probation altogether.
Besides Davis, 10 other people in that period received “stacked” probation sentences of two or more years for non-DUI traffic offenses or minor misdemeanors, like shoplifting, possession of marijuana, or “pedestrian under the influence.” In total, 56 received those types of sentences in 2018.
Capital Probation took on supervising Davis. Clayton contracts with Capital Probation to supervise all defendants on misdemeanor probation at no cost to the city. Not only is Georgia one of the few states that criminalizes traffic tickets, it is also one of approximately 12 states that allows localities to outsource misdemeanor probation supervision to private companies. (Felony probation cases, which are not handled through Clayton’s city court, are supervised by public probation officers.)
Instead of charging the city for its services, private probation companies make their profit by collecting fees directly from the people they supervise, like Davis. On top of the fines Davis owed to the court, she owed a $44 monthly fee to Capital Probation — $35 for probation supervision and $9 earmarked for a state victims’ compensation fund. If paid every month for 60 months, it amounts to another $2,640 — more than doubling Davis’ total costs. To remind Davis of the stakes from the outset, “FAILURE TO REPORT AS DIRECTED WILL RESULT IN A WARRANT FOR YOUR ARREST” is splashed in all caps across the Capital Probation agreement.
“How are you supposed to pay?” Davis wonders, already struggling to pay her bills and support her two children in high school.
For Davis, the trap of “offender-funded” probation was laid: Keeping up with her supervision fees would make it almost impossible to pay off the underlying fines, which keep a defendant on probation. In fact, Davis’ case was marked as “early termination,” meaning she could end her probation as soon as she could pay her court fines. But as with traditional loan debt, paying off the principal — in this case, court fines — can be rendered impossible by accumulated interest — in this case, monthly supervision fees.
The “domino effect,” as Davis refers to it, was in motion. Davis had lost almost two weeks of paychecks while languishing in jail, which meant she fell behind on her weekly car payments. Then, she missed a power bill, and the electric company shut off her lights. The added probation payments only put her further behind.
“I couldn’t catch up,” Davis tells me. Her car was repossessed, and to report to probation, Davis needed that car. And even if she could report, she didn’t have the money to pay for the probation supervision, so she stopped reporting. “You do the best you can, but sometimes it’s not enough,” she says.
Davis eventually left Clayton and Rabun County, the place where she was born and raised, and where her family had more than 150 years of history. But it had become a place where Davis lived in fear. “They step on you,” she says.
Towns turn to fines to drum up revenue
An extensive In These Times investigation found that at least 115 people convicted of minor traffic charges or misdemeanors in Clayton in 2018 received probation sentences of a year or more. Jack Long, a Georgia-based attorney and longtime private probation expert, describes these sentences as “draconian.” Our investigation included extensive file review and court-watching sessions, and interviews with lawyers, policy experts, legislators and those most impacted by these practices. The investigation also draws on public records requests filed during my time as a legal investigator at the Southern Center for Human Rights, with permission.
Our investigation identified a judicial standing order, requested by John Roberts and signed by Judge Sneed, that in effect softened recent legislative reforms intended to cap probation fees for defendants who are unable to pay their court fines. That standing order, in Long’s words, “increase[s] [a probation company’s] revenue … which has the effect of making poor people … pay more money to a private company.”
In a detailed response to questions from In These Times, John Roberts denies Long’s claim, noting the terms of Davis’ early termination eligibility. “I always encourage my probationers to complete probation as soon as they’re eligible to terminate early to save the hassle of reporting as well as money,” Roberts writes. “So again, NO, I do not engage in trying to prolong the term of probationers … to increase revenue.”
I described Davis’ charges and her sentence to former Georgia state Rep. Robert Trammell, the former Democratic minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, who worked on the legislative probation reforms in the Judiciary Non-Civil Committee. Trammell says “the [reform] bill was designed to address” cases precisely like Davis’ — to ensure no one was “staying under the supervision … on and on and on … because they lacked means.” But Davis was not affected by these reforms.
The private probation system in Clayton is just one such example in a state that continues to have, by far, highest probation rate in the country, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan firm that produces research on mass incarceration.
Ultimately, this probation debt — a cousin of other forms of loan debt — fractures families that become subsumed by it, according to Thomas Gokey. Gokey is co founder of the Debt Collective, a debtors’ union that recently sponsored a probation debt jubilee that canceled $3.2 million in probation fees. Debt also sows distrust in public institutions among communities that feel like they are being exploited and forced out of their homes, Gokey says.
As Davis reflected on her own debt, she sees a city telling her, “We need you out of here now because you don’t make enough money.” But “that’s our home,” Davis adds forcefully.
Davis’ experience lays bare the symptoms and costs of a predatory mode of municipal finance. Court-based municipal finance has its roots in the austerity era of the 1980s, as a newly empowered conservative federal government stemmed the flow of federal money to states and localities. The practice has proliferated across the country in the years following the 2008 financial collapse, according to Sarathy Jones. As municipal revenues cratered in the recession, and with restrictions on how localities can raise revenue, cities filled their budgetary gaps on the backs of those passing through their courts at levels never seen before: “It was the easiest thing [cities] could do,” Sarathy Jones says. But, “We know who ends up being caught in the criminal legal system,” she says. “Low-income communities” and “Black and brown… communities.”
Sarathy Jones calls this system a form of “regressive” taxation.
Predatory municipal finance first reached popular consciousness in the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014. The groundbreaking Department of Justice report that followed described Ferguson’s “revenue generation” model of policing: “Officers appear to see some residents… less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.” In 2013, municipal fines and fees accounted for 20.2% of Ferguson’s budget, a figure that astounded DOJ investigators. In 2018, the year Davis appeared in Clayton Municipal Court, 24.6% of Clayton’s general revenue came from court fines, according to the city’s annual audit.
In this system of predatory municipal governance, residents like Davis, who describes herself as a “poor country girl,” are caught in the crosshairs.
“They’ll make you feel like you’re worthless”
I know that private enterprise can do a better job and do it more efficiently,” declared longtime Georgia politico Ned Young, co-founder of one of the first private probation companies in Georgia, to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) on the eve of the industry’s big breakthrough in the state. In 1992, the Georgia legislature became one of the first in the nation to authorize the privatization of misdemeanor probation. In late 1992, Chatham County, home to Savannah, became Georgia’s first county to follow through.
Chatham County’s contract with Ned Young’s Professional Corrections Services revealed the structure of this new probation system: “Under the contract,” Young explained in the AJC article, “Chatham pays us nothing, not one dime.…We collect our money from the people on probation.”
From the outset, proponents offered a new approach to county and city governance, one that prioritized cutting costs and generating evermore municipal revenue.
Young, with Pat Monahan, Chatham County’s assistant manager, highlighted the key goals of the model. First, Young estimated his company would save Chatham approximately $365,000 per year. Second, Professional Corrections Services would be more “aggressive and successful” in collecting fines than their public counterparts, according to the 1992 article.
Private probation companies make their money by shifting the criminal legal system’s costs onto the backs of those entangled in the municipal court system. This process is often referred to — by the system’s actors, legislators and critics alike — as “offender-funded” or “user-pay.” As Young advertised, probation companies offer cities what looks like a sweet deal. In exchange, these companies are permitted to charge fees to those on probation. Sometimes these fees include a host of expensive “services,” provided by the company, such as mandatory drug testing or “anti-theft” classes, ankle monitors, or even a “digital photo fee.” Probation companies’ bread and butter, however, is monthly supervision fees, like those that Davis confronted in Clayton.
In this model, longer terms of probation rule. The reasoning is clear: The monthly fees are far higher than the marginal cost of the “supervision.”
Following Chatham County’s lead, the privatization rush grew over the next 20 years, and private probation came to dominate the criminal legal landscape in Georgia’s misdemeanor courts. But privatization came with a clear consequence: Probation rates skyrocketed, outpacing prison and jail rate growth in the state. The number of people on probation (both felony and misdemeanor) more than doubled between 1990 and 2004, when Georgia first hit the 400,000 mark, according to data collected by Reform Georgia, a justice policy think tank.
By 2018, Georgia’s probation rate per 100,000 adult residents was 3.5 times the national rate, eclipsing every other state in the country, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. More than half of those on probation in Georgia were on misdemeanor probation, according to the AJC, and 80% of those on misdemeanor probation were supervised by a private company.
But these probation companies’ profit-seeking practices were beginning to attract notice.
In 2015, after what the AJC called a “blistering” statewide audit, dozens of lawsuits and a barrage of bad press surrounding Georgia’s “troubled misdemeanor probation system,” as the AJC put it, the Georgia legislature passed House Bill 310 (HB310), a modest reform of the private probation system. The “misdemeanor probation system,” the AJC noted in its coverage, “is widely used by judges as a high cost payment program for traffic fines.”
The HB310 reform package sought to restrain the system’s excesses but not transform the system. According to Rep. Robert Trammell, legislators were “trying to reign back in some of the [probation industry’s] more abusive practices.” They “settled” on a set of tweaks.
One of HB310’s most substantive changes was the imposition of a three-month cap on supervision fees for “pay-only” probation cases — those cases in which defendants are placed on probation because they can’t pay court fines.
The new three-month cap, while still allowing some fees to be extracted from defendants who can’t afford to pay, nonetheless had profound effects on the bottom line for probation companies. California-based Sentinel Offender Services, Georgia’s largest probation provider at the time of HB310’s passage, supervised approximately 7,000 people on misdemeanor probation in Atlanta alone, according to an article in Slate; 70% were designated as pay-only cases under HB310’s new cap on supervision fees. While Sentinel had gained notoriety (and faced legal exposure) from its alleged administration of illegal drug tests, supervision fees remained the company’s primary mechanism for generating revenue.
Following the passage of HB310, Sentinel’s “chief business development officer,” Mark Contestabile, wrote to city officials that their Atlanta office had “lost tens of thousands of dollars monthly,” in an email among a cache of documents obtained by The Marshall Project in 2017. In a proposal made to Atlanta court officials in light of the new law, Sentinel pitched an amended public-private probation services model — also obtained by The Marshall Project—warning that “offender-funded” probation had “become politically and fiscally untenable.”
Sentinel’s proposal revealed another priority at the heart of private probation: Not only would reform hurt the company’s profit margins, but it would erode public coffers “for the cities and counties that [rely] on fines generated by criminal sanctions.” Private companies, Sentinel argued, collect fines at rates “25%-30% higher than in house programs.”
The city of Atlanta rebuffed the company’s proposal for a new operating model that would salvage its profit margins. Not long after, Sentinel left Georgia entirely, selling all of its probation contracts there to CSRA Probation Services, now the largest provider in the state.
So how did all of this change and reform affect a smaller company like Capital Probation, operating outside of national and local media attention? And why did Davis tally more than $2,500 in prospective supervision fees if HB310 was “designed,” according to Rep. Trammell, to cap fees in cases like hers at three months (which would have amounted to $132)?
In Georgia, cycle of probation debt continues despite reforms
On May 10, 2017, less than a year before Lynn Davis was sentenced to five years’ probation, Georgia’s Department of Community Supervision (DCS), which oversees the state’s private probation industry, conducted its annual audit of Capital Probation to ensure compliance with the law. In its review, DCS noted that “several cases appear to conflict” with the pay-only provision in HB310. The auditor was concerned that Capital was “not treating cases as ‘pay-only’ when the defendant is placed on probation supervision solely because such defendant is unable to pay court imposed fines and surcharges. However, the probation provider assumed cases were not ‘pay-only’ and assessed and/or collected more than 3 months of standard supervision fees.”
Within two weeks, and in direct response to DCS’s concerns, Judge Sneed and Capital Probation landed on their resolution: formalizing the status quo by judicial order. On May 24, 2017, Judge Sneed signed a standing order regarding the “Designation of Pay Only Cases.” Standing orders are administrative directives that courts use to establish general rules for how matters will be handled in a particular court.
Judge Sneed’s standing order states explicitly that it was “requested” by “the probation officer” — and is signed, at the bottom, by Judge Sneed and John Roberts, president and chief probation officer of Capital Probation.
The order, although confusingly worded, appears to Sarathy Jones and Long to avoid the 2015 statutory cap on monthly probation fees: “Probationers in the Municipal Court of Clayton sentenced after July 1, 2015 shall be designated as non ‘pay-only’ probation sentences and were not placed on probation for the sole purpose of paying their Court-ordered fine(s) and surcharge(s).” July 1, 2015, was the effective date of HB310.
The standing order, according to Sarathy Jones and Long, effectively redefines pay-only probation to only refer to defendants the court explicitly labels as such, rather than the definition laid out by the state: “a defendant … placed under probation supervision solely because such defendant is unable to pay the court-imposed fines and statutory surcharges.”
“They’re reclassifying these as not about payment in order to allow for the fees to be charged. … It seems like they … are trying to get around [the] three-month [cap],” Sarathy Jones says.
According to Roberts, the judge has discretion to set probation terms, and the standing order was signed because the compliance monitor “needed something from the Judge to verify his policy” regarding the designation of pay-only cases.
“The Designation of Pay Only Cases Order was not a ploy to increase profits,” Roberts said. “It was requested by my governing body to clarify policy from the Court. It satisfied them.”
When asked by In These Times about the standing order, DCS replied: “We do not have the authority to impose upon the court when pay-only status is applicable and therefore cannot sanction the probation providers for abiding by such judicial order.”
To Jack Long, the standing order is in direct contravention of the legislature’s intent. According to Long, “a judge cannot change what the legislature said. Pay-only probation is when the sole purpose of the probation is to give the defendant time to pay.”
Roberts replied that Long is either “missing context or misinformed.”
Importantly, as Long himself acknowledges, HB310 did not carefully define “pay-only probation,” which meant it had “too many loopholes to have teeth,” Long says. For example, a judge could add “one hour of community service” to a defendant’s sentence and then decide that no longer constituted pay-only probation, according to Long. (Indeed, Davis received 20 hours of community service, a small addition to her five years’ probation and thousands of dollars of fines and fees). As such, Long concludes, “the entire [statute] was just window dressing for the private probation industry.”
Roberts, for his part, says he believes the legislative reforms and past lawsuits have “cleaned up” the industry, and that his small company, formed in 2002, has established “ethical, fair and reputable” policies in good standing with state compliance.
For Lynn Davis, the probation system in Clayton had staggering consequences. But, she says, this kind of “sentence is just how it works” in Clayton. And Davis was far from the only one.
The wide-ranging impacts of Clayton’s private probation system
Claire Young says she felt like she “was being taken advantage of” during her encounter with Clayton’s court system in 2018. Young, who was 72 at the time, was staying with her sister in Clayton during a “horrible time in my life,” struggling financially between jobs.
During a February interview, Young tells me she had heard police in the area were “notorious” for pulling drivers over when she moved to the Clayton area. One day, she was stopped for speeding. The officer noticed her insurance had lapsed, something she described as an unfortunate consequence of her financial hardships.
That incident began a years-long saga that followed the Clayton court pattern. Young appeared in court the month after Lynn Davis, in March 2018, and pleaded guilty to reduced counts on both charges. Young was sentenced to two years’ probation— consecutive 12-month terms — for her speeding ticket and her insurance lapse. She owed almost $1,000 in fines, an amount she could not afford on the day of court. But her case was not designated as pay-only, with HB310’s cap on supervision fees. Like Davis’ case, Young’s was marked “early termination,” meaning she could end probation early if she paid off her underlying fines. But each month that she couldn’t pay her fine, the supervision fees added to her debt, placing payment further out of reach.
Young did not realize, at first, that she had been sentenced to probation, thinking instead she was on a “payment plan” to give her time to pay her fines.
John Roberts says he finds it “hard to believe” Young was unaware of the terms of her probation agreement since she signed a waiver form to plead guilty. Roberts notes all defendants he supervises are eligible to pay off half of their court fines by completing community service at the rate of $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage. They may also request the judge convert their entire fine to community service work, though this would not include probation fees.
Meanwhile, in May 2018, according to probation officer notes in her file, Young reported she was in “deep debt” and “again” requested “for fine to be lowered.” According to the notes, her probation officer “explained that [her fines] cannot [be lowered.]”
Young soon learned the “horrifying” stakes of her new sentence as she began to fall behind on payments. Her probation officer threatened her with probation revocation hearings, which could mean jail time. Young was “hauled back into court,” as she describes it, on at least two occasions, and recalls being “so scared” when she had to face the judge. Roberts, in commenting for this story, indicated that Young failed to show up for probation appointments, leading to three probation revocation hearings, which he said are required when a defendant falls two monthly payments behind.
After one such hearing, approximately six months into her time on probation, Young left the court/police department building flustered. In the parking lot outside, she tripped and “fell because I was so upset,” and a paramedic was called because of the amount of blood. It marked the nadir of her entanglement with what she calls the “barbaric” court system in Clayton, and remains one of the most “humiliating experiences” of Young’s life. “They make you feel like you’re worthless,” Young tells me.
Beyond Davis and Young, the private probation system has had wide-ranging effects in Clayton. A review of all of Clayton’s court cases in 2018 reveals that at least 115 defendants received long probation sentences of a year or more — just like Davis and Young — for similarly minor traffic charges or misdemeanors. One defendant received three years’ probation for minor traffic offenses, one of which was a $15 seatbelt violation. Another received a two-year probation sentence for two traffic offenses, including 12 months for running a stop sign. One man received four years of probation for three traffic tickets (two insurance lapses and driving on a suspended license) and possession of drug-related objects.
In Clayton’s city court, a defendant’s ability to pay fines appeared directly correlated to their sentencing. Defendants with a wide range of offenses similar to Davis’ and Young’s — or some even more severe — did not receive probation if they were able to pay their fines. In one revealing case, a defendant sentenced to two consecutive 12-month probation sentences (for speeding and reckless driving) had his probation crossed out on official court documents after it was noted he ultimately paid his fines.
Data reported to Georgia’s Department of Community Supervision show the pay-only label for probation cases, and thus the three-month cap on probation fees that went with it, was applied to a fraction of total cases in Clayton. In DCS’s 2019 compliance report, conducted in summer 2019, Capital Probation reported only six cases — or just under 3%, of active probation cases in Clayton Municipal Court — were serving on pay-only probation, a far cry from the 70% figure that Sentinel cited before it cut ties with Georgia.
Clayton is not alone, however. An identical standing order was signed on the exact same date in at least three other jurisdictions where Judge Sneed presided and Capital served as probation provider. In these four courts, only 5% of active probation cases were designated as pay-only, per the DCS compliance report. (It is not clear how many cases were labeled pay-only between the 2015 effective date of HB310 and the 2017 standing order, as DCS did not yet track overall figures in their initial compliance reports.)
In commenting for this story, Roberts reported the 2017 standing order is no longer in effect because his company worked with Judge Sneed “to come up with a new policy based on what we had experienced in Court over the years and what charges are based on financial hardship.” Roberts said Judge Sneed signed a new standing order May 14, 2019 for each of the courts where Capital provides probation services — which “classifies a standard sentence for each charge listing special conditions and minimum term lengths for all cases to be classified as a non ‘pay-only’ cases.” All other cases are designated pay-only, Roberts said. Young’s case, he said, would have been classified as pay-only under the more recent 2019 standing order.
The 2019 order, however, does not explicitly reference pay-only cases. And the minimum sentences it sets for a host of traffic offenses and misdemeanors, such as driving on a suspended license and possession of marijuana, include mandatory probation and community service in addition to court fines. According to Jack Long, the new order raises legal concerns of its own because it suggests that the court is “prejudg[ing] individuals before hearing the facts.”
“Speed up and take care of business”
In 2019, Governing, a magazine that covers state and local governments, published “Addicted to Fines,” one of the first attempts to track trends in predatory municipal finance across the country. The report defined the threshold of “high” fine revenues as more than 10% of a city’s general revenue or revenues that exceeded $100 per adult resident. Not only did Clayton exceed the report’s 10% threshold by more than double in 2018, its total fine revenue per capita was $308.
It is not just Clayton that stands out, however. In Governing’s analysis, Georgia had 52 localities that generated more than 20% of their general revenue from court fines and forfeitures, more than any other state. In a report that analyzed all 50 states from the libertarian public interest law firm, Institute for Justice, Georgia ranked first as the legal environment “most hospitable” for municipal “taxation by citation,” as the report’s authors refer to it. The report concluded, “not only do … [Georgia’s] laws do little to discourage reliance on fines and fees for revenue, but they also provide for the structures and mechanisms that allow such behavior to flourish,” including outsourcing fines collection to private companies.
But Clayton did not always generate a quarter of its general revenue from court fines. In fact, Clayton’s share of revenue generated from fines has grown continuously in the years after the 2008 financial crisis while its share of tax revenue has decreased in tandem. According to Clayton city audits, the amount of court revenue increased by about 60% between 2011 and 2018, all while the city’s expenditures and population have remained relatively constant. In 2011, the city generated 15.3% of its revenue from fines; by 2018, that figure had ballooned to 24.6%. City leaders in Clayton have made decisions about how they would sustain their city, and more importantly, from whom they would extract revenue. A city like Clayton is “fraught with misaligned incentives,” says Sarathy Jones, of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
Robert Sneed was appointed as Clayton’s Municipal Court judge in 2017, but he had long been a familiar face at courthouses across the region. By 2012, he was already serving as municipal judge in 17 jurisdictions, a number that far surpasses any other judge in the state. That number has since grown to at least 22.
Of those 22 municipal courts, half meet the Governing report’s criteria for abnormally high court revenue. And Judge Sneed serves as judge in all four of the municipal courts for which Capital Probation served as probation company in 2018. All four of those Capital Probation cities appear in Governing’s report.
The circumstances preceding Judge Sneed’s appointment as Clayton’s judge illuminate the city’s view of its court. Judge Sneed replaced longtime Judge David Smith. City officials had raised “concerns” about Smith in a January 2016 city council meeting, when, according to meeting minutes, “[Councilmember] Debbie [Chisholm] stated that she would like to discuss the City Judge’s appointment. She stated that everyone has had this discussion regarding the concerns.”
At issue was Chisholm’s worry that “there are too many court cases that are being assigned a Public Defender. This process is creating more time and city resources, therefore costing the city more money.” Chisholm (who is no longer a city council member) succinctly encapsulated the city’s priorities: efficiency and the preservation of “city resources.” Later at the meeting, according to the minutes, city officials discussed the need for the court system to “speed up and take care of business.” Chisholm did not respond to requests for comment. Clayton’s city manager, on behalf of all Clayton officials contacted, declined to comment on any specific allegations, writing, “[t]he City of Clayton takes its involvement within the judicial system seriously and strives at all times to comply with Georgia and Federal law concerning its Municipal Court.”
The January 2016 meeting also exposed a tangled web of city and court bureaucracy. According to the minutes, “[A]fter much discussion it was determined that the Chief of Police chooses the Public Defender. Therefore [Police Chief] Andy Strait said that he would discuss this further with the Public Defender.”
In other words, the chief of police chooses the public defender tasked with representing those arrested by the police for allegedly violating laws. Without reservation, the city council, who had just re-appointed Strait as police chief, gave him a directive to talk with the public defender about “speed[ing] up” the court process. After reviewing the city council minutes, Sarathy Jones expressed concern “that those two entities should not be having that kind of relationship.”
Chief Strait did not respond to requests for comment.
Yet another potential conflict of interest, according to Georgia attorney Jack Long, is that Clayton’s city attorney — engaged deeply in managing the city’s budgetary and legal responsibilities — serves a dual role as the solicitor charged with prosecuting defendants on whose very backs budgetary gaps might be closed. It is in this context, of contingent relationships, that the city’s budgetary priorities can be infused into the operation of its criminal legal system. These “overlaps” in responsibilities call “into question what drives decision making,” Sarathy Jones says.
City Attorney Mitch Baker did not respond to requests for comment.
In early 2017, 364 days after the city council raised its concerns, Robert Sneed was appointed as Clayton’s new city judge.
The court’s revenue generation reached new heights from the very start of Judge Sneed’s tenure. In fiscal year 2018, Judge Sneed’s first full fiscal year as judge, the city’s budget expected $595,000 in court revenue, which was $208,000 more than its fiscal year 2017 budget — and more than double what the court generated in 2011. While the court fell nearly $100,000 short of those expectations, fines and forfeitures still amounted to 24.6% of the city’s revenue in fiscal year 2018.
Clayton’s city manager noted that “Clayton utilizes and relies upon a Municipal Judge whose sole role with the City is to preside over and conduct the Municipal Court; creating a separation between the Court and the multiple other administrative, legislative, and enforcement roles of the City.” Judge Sneed did not respond to requests for comment.
As Clayton’s court has transformed, city leaders have oriented routine budgetary decisions around this new paradigm. At one council workshop — held later the same day of Lynn Davis’ 2018 court proceeding — the police chief, Andy Strait, requested funds for body cameras in the aftermath of a lethal police shooting in Clayton. Councilmember Debbie Chisholm’s reaction was telling, asking “if the department could add money by raising fines,” according to the Clayton Tribune. Strait “responded that it was a possibility, but fines were already recently increased.”
In the very same workshop, a public accountant presented his annual audit for the previous fiscal year, noting in his presentation that fines and forfeitures were up approximately $115,000.
“You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything”
I met Lynn Davis for the first time four years to the day after her 2018 sentencing. “I’m coming up on 50,” she tells me, her voice catching. “I don’t want to have to worry about this stuff, I want to be a grandma, and see my grandkids, and spoil my kids.”
Davis began to reflect on her roots in Clayton, telling me about her great-grandmother’s house, the white house on a hill near the center of town. “I’ve got generations of family buried there,” she tells me. It is those roots that give her fortitude. Davis has remained unyielding in her desire to tell her story.
Davis has a clear vision of a city with fundamentally different priorities. But, “Instead of setting up programs for rehabilitation [and] setting up jobs [and] a transit system … they build a jail,” Davis laments, referring to a Rabun County construction project for a new jail annex that increases capacity by nearly 60%. Meanwhile, there remains a lengthy waiting list for public housing in Clayton, says Davis, who was once on the waiting list herself.
Davis says repeatedly that she is committed to fighting for a town she feels has left her and many residents behind. She tries to live by an adage of her grandfather’s: “You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.” Instead of more jail beds, and a city that views people as “sources of revenue,” what Clayton needs most, Davis says, is “something to show to these people that they matter.”
This story was reported with support from the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. Skyler Aikerson and Jocelyn Martínez-Rosales contributed fact-checking.
Nick Barber is a freelance writer in New York and Georgia, with a focus on incarceration, criminalization, and punishment.