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SPLC client featured on ‘Last Week Tonight’ segment on debtors’ prisons

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver tackled the issue of modern-day debtors’ prisons by featuring the story of an SPLC client – a grandmother who ended up behind bars after struggling to pay traffic tickets.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver tackled the issue of modern-day debtors’ prisons by featuring the story of an SPLC client – a grandmother who ended up behind bars after struggling to pay traffic tickets.

The HBO program examined how low-income people are finding themselves deep in debt and even behind bars as cities turn to private probation companies to collect fines for traffic tickets and other minor citations. These for-profit companies not only collect the fines but charge a fee that goes directly to their bottom line – a practice that leaves many people trapped in a destructive payment cycle they can’t escape. SPLC client Harriet Cleveland’s story exemplifies the abusive practice.

“Her story touches on pretty much everything we’ve seen so far,” Oliver says in the segment. “How did Harriet end up in jail? Well, she struggled to pay traffic tickets, had her license suspended, had to keep driving or she’d lose her job, was then caught driving without a license, ticketed again, and then had her fines handed over to the good people at [Judicial Correction Services].

Cleveland made $140 monthly payments for traffic tickets – $40 of which went to Judicial Correction Services, the private probation company in Montgomery, Alabama. When she didn’t have any money left to give, she ended up spending 10 days in jail. After securing her release, the SPLC filed a lawsuit, leading to a settlement agreement that will change the city’s practices. JCS also closed its Montgomery office.

It may seem like a happy ending, but asLast Week Tonight points out in the segment above, there are many more people struggling to pay their fines and stay out of jail as cities continue to run these modern-day debtors’ prisons.

JCS operates in nearly 100 Alabama municipalities, and in other states as well.

In a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month, the SPLC accused JCS of violating federal racketeering laws by extorting money from poor people in Clanton, Alabama, by threatening incarceration to extract payments. It also accuses the company and the city of Clanton of formalizing their relationship through an illegal contract that violates Alabama law prohibiting the charging of a probation fee in city court.