Our criminal justice system is a nightmare for those members of our society who are too poor to pay in. Traffic court systems in our local municipalities have become a feeder pipeline to a larger criminal justice system that can tie people up for years in the court system—all while providing local revenue and funding.
Precious Jones is one example of how people can become victims of that system even when they are doing everything they have been told to do by lawyers, judges and other officers of the court. As she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, her nightmare began with a speeding ticket on Mother’s Day, 2017.
Jones was stopped by the Missouri Highway Patrol and cited for 120 mph on Interstate 70. She was given a ticket and sent on her way. Three months later, in August of that same year, she missed her court date.
“It slipped my mind,” she told the Post-Dispatch.
When Jones realized her mistake, she took measures to fix it. She called and got a new court date and paid the bond on the outstanding warrant that was in her name. She took driver education classes, did community service and hired an attorney who told her that if she agreed to pay a higher fine, she wouldn’t get points on her license from the ticket.
At her court date this past May, Jones pleaded guilty to a Class B misdemeanor of doing at least 26 miles over the speed limit. The judge in her case handed down a sentence of six months in jail as well as two years of probation. Her jail sentence would be suspended if she agreed to do 20 days of “shock time” in jail—serving every weekend for ten consecutive weekends.
On top of the jail time, Jones’ license was suspended because of the conviction, and it would only be reinstated when she paid all of her jail fines and served her time. When Jones asked the judge if her time could be served in a St Louis jail that was more local and convenient to her, the judge told her no.
“She just threw the book at me,” Jones said. “I could have gotten this deal myself. Why did I pay $300 for a lawyer?”
Jones did what she had to do and begged for rides to get to the Lafayette County Jail to serve out her sentence over the course of ten weeks. One day in May, she was an hour late getting to the jail to serve her time. Another time in June, her car broke down on a day when she was supposed to be at the jail.
When July came, Jones thought she had done everything she was supposed to do. She had served her time behind bars—including making up for the two times when she was late and/or delayed in getting to the jail. She had paid all her fines, including the bill she received for serving time in jail (yes, she had to pay for that too).
In September, she received a notice from the Lafayette County Jail that there was a warrant out for her arrest. Prosecutor Kristen Hilbrenner wants to revoke her probation because she was late to jail—ignoring the fact that she had made up for each time and done the extra hours to account for being late.
The attorney she hired, James Worthington, withdrew from her case saying he was not retained to work on what was now a probation violation case.
Jones, who initially only had a speeding ticket, is now facing six months in jail and a $2,500 warrant for her arrest.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Jones told the Post-Dispatch. “They are just not going to let me go.”
Her treatment is circular, cyclical and abusive.
If Jones has to do more time in jail, she will have to pay for that time too. And although court records document that she was told the original speeding ticket would not result in points against her driver license, no one told that to the Department of Revenue, so her license is currently suspended.
She is now forced to take the bus or get rides everywhere she needs to go. She has reached out to the NAACP and the ACLU for help.
In the meantime, she remains stuck in a system that seems designed to trap people just like her; those who can’t afford to pay to play.
“I’m losing everything,” Jones told the Post-Dispatch. “They keep coming back for more. They’re trying to milk me for all I’ve got.”