Music minister trapped in debtors' prison

by Karen L. Willoughby |

SYLACAUGA, Ala. (Christian Examiner) – For months, Tim and Kristy Fugatt focused for the most part on their third child, a son born with a rare brain disease. As a result, Tim Fugatt ended up in what some are calling "debtor's prison."

Bivocational music pastor at Valley View Church of God in Sylacauga, Tim Fugatt acknowledges he let some things slide, such as the need to renew his license plate tags. Returning home from the hospital one night in 2010, after tending to a baby who wasn't getting better, he was pulled over at what Fugatt calls a "traffic checkpoint," and ticketed for expired plates.

Kristy Fugatt also got a couple of traffic tickets about the same time, for the same reason. When the couple, married 12 years, explained their situation to a judge at the Childersburg, Alabama, municipal court, he found them "not guilty," but nonetheless ordered them to pay $500 in court costs.

Stretched too thin to work, minister, be a husband and father and prayerfully watch over his hospitalized son, Tim Fugatt let go of the only thing he wasn't compelled to do: his job. It wasn't long until he wasn't able to make his court payments or other bills.

The court payments went to a collection agency, Judicial Correction Services, established in 2001 and based in Georgia. It's a firm that handles court-ordered collections – mostly in the southeastern United States – for municipalities without the manpower or desire to do so.

Adding to the Fugatt's troubles, their mortgage lender foreclosed on the Fugatts' home, but even more heartbreaking, Cole died in 2011, before his second birthday

"Fugatt says he did the best he could to pay off the family's fines, but says when he couldn't continue to pay and he and his wife missed at least one court date, they were arrested and jailed," according to an interview with John Carlos Frey published by PBS NewsHour.

"I felt completely like a criminal," Tim Fugatt told PBS. "I mean, I didn't sell drugs. I didn't break into anyone's home. I didn't kill anybody. I had an expired tag! ... I was very upset, very angry."

The couple were released several hours later when a relative paid $900 toward what they owed, Frey said.

When asked what Valley View Church of God did to help its music pastor, senior pastor Keith Owensby told Christian Examiner he had not known the Fugatt couple had been jailed. "That has nothing to do with our church," Owensby said.

Fugatt might not have told his church about his need, but he did talk with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization, and joined a class action lawsuit against Judicial Corrections Services and the town of Childersburg.

The suit alleges that jailing people who can not pay their fines violates the Constitution. In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution prohibits imposing "a jail term solely because the defendant is indigent and cannot forthwith pay the fine in full."

David Dinelli, deputy legal director of Southern Poverty Law Center, said he estimates 1,000 people are sent to jail every month in Alabama because they cannot afford to pay a court-ordered fine, according to an article in Daily Mail Online.

"Everyone thinks that debtor's prison is over it's behind us," Dinelli told PBS NewsHour. "It isn't. As a matter of practice, and in some cases, policy, the courts ask one question: 'Can you pay the fine?' If you can't, then you have to [do] what's called 'sit it out in jail.'"

The Fugatt's tragic story that involves the death of their son is merely one illustration of how Judicial Corrections Services (JCS) and similar private contractors rake in excessive profits from those least able to object. At the same time, these for-profit businesses provide income to cash-strapped municipalities, which therefore do not object to the practice.

"Private contractors like JCS do not charge the city anything to collect debts, but they pass on the cost of doing business onto offenders like the Fugatts, charging them $45 a month on top of a start-up fee until the entire debt is paid in full," wrote Snejana Farberov for the Daily Mail. "In the first four months after the court ruling, the [Fugatt] family managed to pay off $300 of the $500 they owed in court fees."

Then Cole Fugatt died. Then the Fugatt family lost the house that had been in their family for generations. Months passed in a haze of grief.

"Over the next eight months, the family racked up an additional $2,500 in fines for failure to appear in court, and finally in February 2012 a warrant was issued for their arrest," Farberov wrote. "Two years later, the family still owe the private contractor money, after paying down $1,300."

A lengthy article in the June 2014 issue of New Yorker magazine titled "Get Out of Jail Inc." provides other examples of people trapped in a cycle of fines, fees and unending payments to private municipal debt-collectors.

"The system is known as "offender-funded" justice," wrote Sarah Stillman for the New Yorker magazine. "But legal challenges to it are mounting, amid concerns about abuse, corruption, and the use of state penalties to collect private profits. In a wide range of cases, offender-funded justice may not result in justice at all."