ATLANTA - A U.S. woman held in jail for seven months longer than her original sentence because she was too poor to pay a $705 fine was freed on Wednesday, her attorney said.
Ora Lee Hurley was ordered to pay the fine and sentenced in August 2005 to 120 days in jail after she was convicted in Georgia of possession of cocaine for personal use and breaking the terms of probation for a similar offense 15 years before.
She served the sentence at Atlanta's Gateway Diversion Center, a halfway house that allows its inmates out on day-release to work as long as they pay room and board. Hurley, 45, worked at a restaurant earning $700 a month and was supposed to pay the fine with that money, according to a petition filed this week.
But monthly bills including a $600 payment to the center and $52 for transportation left her with only $23.22, out of which she also had to buy soap, toothpaste and other items. Once the sentence was completed in February she was detained further because the fine, which dated back to the original probation terms from 1990, had not been paid.
"The justice system is designed with the intention that the amount of money you have should not factor into the length of time that you are in prison. But that's not the reality here," said attorney Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights.
A petition filed on Hurley's behalf by the rights center argued that her imprisonment violated constitutional principles "which prohibit imprisoning a person whose poverty makes it impossible to pay a fine."
Hurley said she paid $7,643 in all but nobody explained why so little of that money went toward paying off the debt.
"I went through my little anger stage but I feel a lot better now that something has been done," she said from her home in Americus, Georgia. "It feels good (to be home). I have been away from home for 14 months."
Hundreds of people in Georgia alone may have suffered extended periods of incarceration due to the failure to pay fines, Geraghty said.