The interactive Google map above shows homes where municipal court fines have been added to utility bills since Jan. 1, 2013, represented by blue dots. Click any dot to see how much the fine was and when it was added to the account. The overlaid colored zones represent the racial make up of the city, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The more green the area, the more white the population is. Conversely, the more yellow, orange or red the area is, the more African-American. Click the areas to see the exact racial make up of each block.
LaGRANGE — Without reliable access to utilities, some people in LaGrange feel powerless.
Since Jan. 1, 2013, the city of LaGrange has attached more than $125,000 in unpaid municipal court fines to nearly 300 utility accounts across the city, particularly in neighborhoods with high concentrations of minorities, according to city utility and 2010 U.S. Census data analyzed by the Daily News.
The attached fines are as low as $1.10, as with an account in the 500 block of Jefferson Street, to upward of $12,000, as with an account in the 100 block of Hamilton Road.
The city, which both runs the municipal court and operates the utility system, has defended the practice by saying it prevents incarceration, but opponents, including the Georgia NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, argue the practice is a barrier to economic stability for the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.
Here’s how the system works:
When a person is found guilty of a misdemeanor crime — for example, speeding or disorderly conduct — the city court judge can sentence that person to a fine, probation, community service or jail time. If the defendant is fined and sentenced to probation, he must report to the city’s probation office on Ridley Avenue each month. If he can’t pay the fine in full, it can be paid in installments. Those payments are on top of a $44 per month probation supervision fee, as well as other state fees added on.
If the person’s probation ends after the allotted time and there’s still an outstanding balance on the fine, the city takes the debt to court and has it converted into a civil judgment. At that point, only money can save the debtor. Civil judgments cannot be converted to community service or any other form of restitution.
Once the civil judgment is obtained, the city cross references the defendant’s Social Security number with its utility accounts. If there’s a match, that civil judgment is tacked on to the utility account.
That’s what happened to 31-year-old Troyvelle Sharpe of LaGrange.
At a town hall meeting held by the Georgia NAACP and its coalition partners Thursday at a church on Murphy Avenue, she said she was convicted of driving on a suspended license in 2007.
“I was staying in Lucy Morgan (LaGrange Housing Authority apartments), and all of the sudden, I got a light bill and it was like $5,600,” she said. “$600 of it was my actual light bill and $5,000 was my probation fine.”
As a single mother of four working a minimum wage job at Burger King, Sharpe said she was in the dark about what to do next. In the weeks after she received her bill, the city disconnected her utilities.
“I had my children, and during the day we would go to my mother’s house,” she said. “They would eat there and bathe there, but at night we were staying in a dark apartment because I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
From there, Sharpe’s situation spiraled. She said the LaGrange Housing Authority told her she couldn’t live there if she didn’t have utilities, and the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services became involved.
“They said they would take my kids if I didn’t have utilities,” Sharpe said. “I didn’t have anywhere else to turn. I was trying to think of everything I could do. I even thought of going to a homeless shelter because I didn’t want to lose my children.”
Sharpe eventually moved to West Point because “the light bill offices aren’t connected,” and she was able to find a place to live and have utilities switched on.
Sharpe isn’t alone. At Thursday’s NAACP town hall, more than a dozen people shared similar stories. Francys Johnson, a Statesboro attorney and president of the Georgia NAACP, said he and others want the city to change the fine collection method.
“This impacts the quality of life for the citizens of LaGrange, and we believe once we present the myriad of stories that come out of this hearing and others, that people of goodwill will respond and make adjustments to this policy,” he said.
He noted the NAACP and ACLU are prepared to take the case to litigation, if necessary.
Revenue from utilities helps offset the need for the city to collect property taxes, but the actual probation fees don’t constitute a high percentage of the city’s total budget. In fiscal year 2013-2014, the city collected about $1.6 million in fines and probation fees, according to the city’s 2015-2016 budget. That figure does not include court-ordered restitution, electronic monitoring fees or narcotics condemnations. The city’s total budget for that period was about $110 million.
“The cost to operate the city court is approximately $400,000 (yearly),” Mayor Jim Thornton wrote in an email Thursday. “The cost to operate the probation department is about $600,000. So net revenue to the city is only $600,000, which again is significant, but is a small percentage of the total cost to operate the city.”
Thornton also said he plans to review the policy, which was established by City Council in 2004.
“We now have 12 years of data on the implementation of the practice, so it might be a reasonable time to have a discussion about the policy and whether to continue or modify it,” he stated.
Tyler H. Jones is a reporter with LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2155.