Court probation lawsuit against city of Clanton settled

Published 4:10 pm Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A private, for-profit company that threatened impoverished Alabamians with jail when they couldn’t pay minor fines in Clanton is no longer working for the city, settling the Southern Poverty Law Center’s lawsuit against the municipality that was filed earlier this year in federal court.

The SPLC is also urging other cities across the state to cancel contracts with the company, Judicial Correction Services. In letters to nearly 100 municipalities today, the SPLC warned that the contracts are illegal and that the tactics used by JCS to collect fines can amount to extortion.

“Clanton did the right thing by cutting ties with its private probation company, Judicial Correction Services,” said Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director. “Towns and cities like Clanton are often hoodwinked by companies like JCS who promise to increase collections and revenue. But the reality is that their business model violates state law, and, in Clanton, they were actually extorting profits from some of the area’s poorest residents.

“The political leaders of our towns and cities need to recognize the damage these companies inflict on their communities and to stop using them.”

Under a settlement agreement filed in federal court Tuesday, Clanton’s contract with JCS has ended. Its municipal court will now collect fines, ending the practice of illegal threats and routine harassment by JCS.

The lawsuit’s claims against JCS of racketeering, extortion and abuse of process are still pending. The company currently operates in almost 100 Alabama towns.

Under a contract first awarded in 2009, the city of Clanton put JCS in charge of collecting payments from people who appear in municipal court but cannot afford to pay their fines. People unable to pay immediately were placed on “pay-only probation,” meaning the sole purpose of probation was the collection of fines, fees and related court costs.

After paying a $10 “set-up” fee, they typically had to appear in the JCS office once a month and pay $140. Out of that payment, $40 went to JCS for its profits. When people fell behind on their payments, JCS continued to collect their own fees, effectively extending people’s probation and guaranteeing JCS more money. When people could not pay, company employees threatened to revoke their probation, which would result in jail time.

The SPLC lawsuit accuses JCS and its local manager, Steven Raymond, of violating the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act by extorting money from impoverished Alabamians under the threat of jail. The suit accused the defendants and Clanton of formalizing this relationship through an illegal contract in violation of state law prohibiting the charging of a probation fee in city court.

This issue of charging probation fees is also raised in the SPLC’s letters to cities using JCS. The letters describe how these arrangements violate the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution because they allow a for-profit corporation with a financial incentive to oversee probation.

The letters also describe how the contracts between these cities and JCS often violate the Alabama Constitution because they are not publicly bid—granting an exclusive franchise to the companies.

The Clanton lawsuit followed two earlier lawsuits in Montgomery, one by the SPLC and another by Equal Justice Under Law, that ended with a settlement agreement and that city severing ties with JCS as well. Since the filing of these lawsuits, other Alabama towns have cut ties with private probation companies.

Leaders in Thorsby unanimously voted to end the town’s contract with JCS.

“Private probation companies appear to offer a solution for cash-strapped cities hoping to collect fines,” Brooke said. “But that ‘solution’ not only violates Alabama law, it extorts and terrorizes our most vulnerable communities while fattening the bottom line of these companies.”

SPLC has sent letters to Alabama municipalities who work with JCS, urging them to end the arrangements.

Jemison and Maplesville are listed among the municipalities who were sent the letter, though Maplesville officials told The Clanton Advertiser in March that the town has a contract with a different probation company, which is not under scrutiny by SPLC.