Towns terminate contracts with private probation company

Published 5:15 pm Thursday, August 13, 2015

Fifty-four towns and cities across Alabama, including three in Chilton County, have reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that they either have or intend to terminate their contracts with a private probation company.

The for-profit company collects traffic fines and other minor court debt for municipalities by charging illegal fees and threatening impoverished Alabamians with jail, according to a release from the SPLC.

In June, the SPLC urged officials in almost 100 municipalities to end their contracts with the company, Judicial Correction Services (JCS). The letter from the SPLC warned that the contracts are illegal and that the tactics used by JCS to collect fines can amount to extortion.

Some of the Alabama municipalities had already severed ties with the company without the SPLC’s urging.

“These cities and towns are doing the right thing by cutting ties with Judicial Correction Services,” Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director said in a release. “Our investigation in Clanton shows that JCS is built on a business model that squeezes money out of the poor, often by resorting to illegal tactics. The leaders in these cities and towns have recognized that a contract with JCS is bad for their communities. We are pleased they have done the right thing to avoid litigation.”

Approximately 50 towns are believed to still have contracts with JCS, according to a release from the SPLC.

The SPLC also warned 30 towns this week that have contracts with similar for-profit companies.

“We are hopeful that these towns will also do the right thing and cancel these illegal contracts,” Brooke said in a release. “If they do not, more litigation may be necessary to protect the rights of the poor in these communities.”

The SPLC filed a lawsuit against JCS in Clanton in March. The city canceled its contract with the company as part of a settlement agreement announced in June. The lawsuit’s claims against JCS of racketeering, extortion and abuse of process are still pending.

Under a contract first awarded in 2009, the city of Clanton put JCS, which offers its services for free, 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 pay $140 per month.

Those who couldn’t bring the entire amount in one visit would be required to visit the JCS offices more frequently – sometimes multiple times per week.

Out of the monthly payment, $40 went to JCS for its profits. When people fell behind on their payments, JCS continued to collect its 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 (RICO) 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 was also raised in the SPLC’s letters to cities that use JCS.

The letters described how these arrangements violate the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution because they create an inherent bias by allowing a for-profit corporation with a financial incentive to oversee probation.

The letters also described 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.

Harpersville and Childersburg sued JCS earlier this year, claiming the company’s business practices led to the cities being sued by indigent municipal court defendants jailed when they were unable to make their payments.

A circuit judge in the Harpersville case referred to it as a “debtors’ prison” and a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”

Maplesville is canceling its contract with a separate but similar private probation company, Professional Probation Services.

Trussville also canceled its contract with a similar company, Alabama Court Services.

In addition to Alabama, JCS operates in cities throughout Florida and Georgia.

According to the SPLC, some of the cities that have cancelled contracts with JCS, or are in the process of cancelling, include: Autaugaville, Blountsville, Brent, Bridgeport, Brookwood, Calera, Childersburg, Clanton, Enterprise, Evergreen, Excel, Fairhope, Fort Payne, Glencoe, Gulf Shores, Hamilton, Hammondville, Harpersville, Hoover, Hueytown, Jemison, Leeds, Level Plains, Lincoln, Leeds, Pelham, Prattville, Thorsby, Vestavia Hills, Maplesville, and Wadley

The SPLC says it believes about 50 other cities and towns still have contracts with JCS and about 30 have contracts with similar companies.