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SPLC sues private probation company, Alabama city over racketeering scheme

An SPLC suit filed today accuses Judicial Correction Services, a for-profit company, of violating federal racketeering laws by extorting money from impoverished Alabamians by threatening them with jail when they fall behind on paying fines from traffic violations or other citations.

When Roxanne Reynolds couldn’t pay the fines from traffic tickets in Clanton, Alabama, the city court put her on “pay-only” probation – a form of probation with the sole purpose of collecting fines, fees and related court costs.

Her probation meant she had to leave her job to visit the office of Judicial Correction Services (JCS) once a month to pay $145. But the money wasn’t all going toward her fines. JCS, a private, for-profit company, pocketed $40 each time – prolonging her ordeal and deepening her financial struggle.

Read the complaint.

Reynolds earned very little on an assembly line making automobile parts. Plus, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had to miss three months of work. When she fell behind on her payments, a JCS employee threatened her with jail. She did everything she could to pay. She ignored her mounting medical and utility bills. Once, she barely ate for a week. She was terrified about what would happen to her health in jail.

Last year, Reynolds was finally able to pay off her debt – after 15 months and a four-day stint in jail. But many others are facing a similar situation.

In a federal lawsuit filed today, the SPLC accused JCS of violating federal racketeering laws by extorting money from impoverished Alabamians by threatening them with jail – debtors’ prison – when they fall behind on paying fines from traffic violations or other citations.

The SPLC suit accuses JCS and its local manager, Steven Raymond, of violating the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. It also accuses these defendants and the city of Clanton of formalizing this relationship through an illegal contract that violates Alabama law prohibiting the charging of a probation fee in city court.

“Judicial Correction Services is extorting people for its own profit, pure and simple,” said Sam Brooke, SPLC staff attorney. “With JCS, Clanton has created a two-tiered system of justice: one where people of means pay and go, and another where low-income and working-class people get trapped for months or years in a nightmarish scheme. The company has manipulated the court system to extort money from poor people in Alabama by threatening them with jail.”

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama on behalf of three Clanton residents, including Reynolds, seeks damages for the injuries they suffered and to void the contract between JCS and the city that’s at the heart of the scheme.

Under a contract first awarded in 2009, the city of Clanton put JCS in charge of collecting payments from people who appear in city court but cannot afford to pay their fines. This contract creates an exclusive franchise; it requires all probation cases to be assigned to JCS. It was not subjected to a public bid, as is required for exclusive-franchise contracts.

Those who are fined by the city court in Clanton but can’t afford to pay immediately are placed on “pay-only probation.” They must first pay JCS a $10 “set-up” fee. They typically must appear in the JCS office once a month and pay $140. Out of that payment, $40 goes to JCS for its profits. When people fall behind on their payments, JCS continues to collect its fee, effectively extending people’s probation and guaranteeing JCS more money.

“I always tried my hardest to make my payments to JCS, but I often came up short,” Reynolds said. “The people at JCS didn’t care about how much money I was making, my MS, my medical bills, my work schedule or my doctor’s appointments. They only cared about getting their money. When I couldn’t pay enough, JCS employees would threaten me.” 

Neither JCS nor the city court attempts to determine how much the defendants can pay each month, and JCS unilaterally determines the amount of each payment. The city court also has no way to audit the payments.

Probationers who can’t make the full payment are often required to appear at multiple appointments in the JCS office, sometimes only days apart, and are repeatedly threatened with jail. The local manager, Raymond, carries handcuffs in the office and the company has a logo designed to look like a law enforcement badge, the suit says, to give credibility to JCS threats about incarceration. The company schedules court hearings for those who miss payments or meetings – hearings that can result in jail time.

“Every time I left the JCS building I was so scared that I would break down and cry,” Reynolds said.

Edward Williams, another plaintiff in the suit, ended up in jail due to his inability to pay. Williams, who earned below minimum wage working at a chicken farm, was forced to forego paying other bills and providing for his basic needs to pay JCS.   

What JCS fails to tell people like Reynolds and Williams is that it’s possible to have the JCS fee waived or to have the monthly payments lowered. JCS even has a form to request this change, but it never publicizes this form; JCS uses it only when its employees feel someone “deserves” to have lower payments, often because of a hospitalization. Probationers who ask for the form or a change in their payment plan simply because they do not have the income or ability to pay are told they are not eligible for any help.

Though this lawsuit is targeting the practices in Clanton, JCS operates in nearly 100 cities in Alabama. The company typically operates under the same illegal contracts and, often, follows the same exploitative practices.

Last year, the city of Montgomery, Alabama, terminated its agreement with JCS after it agreed, in the settlement of a separate SPLC lawsuit, to stop jailing indigent people for not paying fines.

“I want to be in this lawsuit because I think it was wrong that they threatened me so much when I was sick and unable to pay,” Reynolds said. “No one should have to go through what I went through with JCS.”