Justice, Not Profit

 

All across the United States, cities and counties use their local courts as profit centers, funding themselves and enriching a growing number of private, for-profit companies with court costs, fines, and fees assessed against impoverished defendants charged with misdemeanors and traffic offensess.  In many of these jurisdictions, the courts struggle to collect these debts — which is unsurprising given that the low-level criminal system primarily ensnares people living in poverty.

 

Lured nonetheless by the prospect of increased revenues, hundreds of municipalities have signed contracts with private companies that promise increased debt collections. The companies charge the municipalities nothing for their “services” and instead create a “user-funded” probation system in which the company makes all of its profits by charging exorbitant fees to the probationers it supervises. In return, the municipality promises to arrest and jail anyone who fails to make payments to the company. Often, timely payment of court debts is the only condition of probation.

 

All the while, a person on for-profit probation with a private company continues to rack up supervision fees, which they also are unable to afford, leading to arrest and the revocation of their probation, and creating an endless cycle of debt, poverty, and jailing. In this way, a $150 speeding ticket can turn into over $1,000 in fees, years of onerous probation and drug testing, and even repeated jailing at the company’s request, with additional fees charged each time a person is jailed. These jurisdictions and companies have created an actor within the criminal system with conflicting loyalties to money and justice.

 

Civil Rights Corps has a pending class action lawsuit against Rutherford County, Tennessee, and Providence Community Corrections, Inc., a private probation company that made millions of dollars over more than a decade by exploiting the poorest people in Rutherford County. The lawsuit alleges violations of Equal Protection, Due Process, the Fourth Amendment, and the federal RICO statute, which prohibits extortion enterprises.  Soon after the lawsuit was filed, PCC, Inc. terminated its contract with Rutherford County and closed its other private probation operations nationwide.

 

In December 2015, the federal court in Tennessee granted Plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction, ending the use of money bonds on violation of probation warrants, which had been used to coerce jailhouse guilty pleas to probation violations, leading to jail time and probation revocations or extensions without any representation. Thirteen people walked out of the jail the next day, and the County withdrew the bonds on almost 10,000 outstanding misdemeanor probationers. We received another favorable ruling when the federal judge denied the Defendants’ motions to dismiss, ruling in our clients’ favor on each of the constitutional claims.

 

The case is ongoing, and Civil Rights Corps is currently investigating private probation practices in other jurisdictions across the country.

 

You can learn more about the work of Civil Rights Corps to end private probation in Tennessee in the complaint for Rodriguez et. al. v. Providence Community Corrections, Inc. et. al. Media coverage of the case can be found in Private Probation Company Accused of Abuses in Tennessee - New York Times and in How to Fight Modern-Day Debtors' Prisons? Sue the Court - The Marshall Project