Over 50 municipalities in Alabama have terminated their contracts with a private “probation” company that charged illegal fees and threatened poor Alabama citizens with jail if they did not pay minor traffic fines and the company’s fees.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sued the city of Clanton, Alabama and its contractor Judicial Correction Services (JCS) claiming the contract is illegal, the tactics used by JCS to collect fines can amount to extortion, and JCS is abusing the legal system for profit. SPLC then alerted approximately 100 other Alabama cities and towns that had contracts with JCS to the probable illegalities involved in the contracts. Many of those municipalities have canceled the contracts. An Alabama circuit judge referred to the business practices of JCS as a “debtor’s prison” and a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”
This is what typically occurs. JCS offers its services to a city for free. The city then contracts with JCS to collect payments from people who appear in municipal court but cannot afford to pay their fines. Those who can not pay immediately are placed on “pay-only probation”; the only purpose of this probation is to collect the fines, fees, and related court costs. After paying a $10.00 “set-up” fee, the person usually has to pay $140 per month, of which a $40.00 fee is paid to JCS. When people fall behind on their payments, JCS continues to collect its own fees; this practice extends the length of time required to pay the fine and increases profits for JCS. When people can’t pay they are threatened with having their probation revoked, which will result in them being sent to jail.
The SPLC points out several things that are wrong with this practice. 1) It violates the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution by creating an inherent bias when allowing a for-profit corporation with a financial incentive to oversee probation. 2) JCS employees violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act by extorting money from poor Alabamians under the threat of jail. 3) The contracts violate the Alabama Constitution because they are not publicly bid, thereby granting an exclusive franchise to the companies. 4) The contracts violate Alabama law that prohibits charging a probation fee in city court.
Clanton, Alabama canceled its contract with JCS when it became fully aware of the company’s actions. Charges against JCS of racketeering, extortion and abuse are pending.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 13 states contract with private for-profit probation companies such as JCS. In 2014, Human Rights Watch reported that more than 1,000 courts using private companies sentenced hundreds of thousands of Americans to probation.