As a young man in 1980, Danny Bearden pleaded guilty in a Georgia court to breaking into a trailer. Rather than send him to jail, the trial judge sentenced Bearden to three years of probation. But as a condition of his probation, Bearden was ordered to pay a $750 fine. Borrowing money from his parents, he paid the first $200 right away, but then he was laid off from his job at a local factory. A ninth-grade dropout who could not read, Bearden tried repeatedly to find other work but failed. When the deadline came for paying the balance of the fine, he showed the court that despite efforts to work he had no income or assets. Nonetheless, the court revoked his probation and ordered him to spend the rest of his sentence in jail.
The judge’s order was upheld in the Georgia courts, and in 1983 Bearden’s case came before the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that jailing him for inability to pay a fine violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the imprisonment order. Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor reasoned that the trial court had found that probation was an appropriate punishment for Bearden’s crime and that no interest was served by sending him to prison. Therefore, the order to incarcerate him was entirely based on his ability to pay the fine. O’Connor argued that the state court was obliged to inquire into the reasons for the failure to pay. Bearden, she found, had made legitimate and extensive efforts to find work, and that as such he was being deprived of his freedom “simply because, through no fault of his own, he cannot pay the fine.” O’Connor found that, “such deprivation would be contrary to the fundamental fairness required by the Fourteenth Amendment.” Instead, a judge needed to determine whether an individual “willfully” declined to pay a fine.
Near the start of her opinion, O’Connor noted that the court had often found that the indigent required special consideration in the criminal justice process. She concluded, “By sentencing petitioner to imprisonment simply because he could not pay the fine, without considering the reasons for the inability to pay or the propriety of reducing the fine or extending the time for payments or making alternative orders, the court automatically turned a fine into a prison sentence.”
In a 2014 interview with National Public Radio, Bearden, by then a supervisor at a small textile plant in rural Georgia, said, “These are poor people, OK? They got families and everything like that. They work a job. And when they get behind in trying to pay, they go to jail.”
The interview with Bearden was featured in a story about how judges across the country take widely differing views of how to apply the “willfully” standard from the Supreme Court decision, and that as a result “every day people go to jail because they failed to pay their court debts.”