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SPLC client recounts devastating debtors’ prison experience to congressional staffers

An SPLC client who served time in a modern-day debtors’ prison in Alabama when she couldn’t pay fines for minor traffic tickets told her story to congressional staffers on Capitol Hill and called for action to prevent others from going to jail simply for being poor.

Harriet Cleveland spoke at a briefing this week that examined the practice of cities and counties hiring for-profit private “probation” companies to collect minor fines and fees. The grandmother from Montgomery, Alabama, was joined by Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director, to highlight how these companies, which operate across the country, often use the justice system to extort payments from the poor – including fees for their own profit – under the threat of jail.

It’s apparent to Cleveland that Congress must act.

“It has to be addressed nationwide so [people] don’t have to worry about going to jail because they can’t afford to pay,” she said after speaking to 50 staff members gathered in a packed meeting room in the Rayburn House Office Building yesterday.

The briefing was held the same week U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., introduced legislation – the “End of Debtors’ Prison Act of 2016” – that would cut federal funds from municipalities that hire for-profit private probation companies.

“This is not a problem that is unique to Alabama,” Brooke said. “These same companies are working in many different states, particularly in the Southeast.”

When Cleveland couldn’t immediately pay her traffic tickets in the city of Montgomery, she was placed on pay-only probation. She made her payments to Judicial Corrections Services (JCS), a private probation company that collected fines for the city. She paid a $140 monthly payment – $40 of which went to the company.

She was desperate to come up with the money for JCS.

“I lost my car to a title loan in order to come up with the amount they told me I had to come up with to keep from going to jail again, so I had to do that,” Cleveland said as she wiped away tears during the briefing.

When she could no longer make the payments, a police officer arrested her in 2013 at her home while she was babysitting her grandson. A judge sentenced her to 31 days in jail even though debtors’ prisons were abolished in the United States almost 200 years ago.

She spent two weeks in jail before SPLC lawyers secured her release.

An SPLC lawsuit ended after a settlement was reached to change the city’s practices. JCS left Alabama last year after the SPLC filed a separate lawsuit against the company for violating federal racketeering laws with its business practices. JCS once had contracts with more than 100 local governments in the state.

Despite this victory, people across the country are finding themselves in Cleveland’s situation. Governments hoping to generate more revenue are turning to these companies which typically don’t charge them for their services but rely on fees they charge probationers. Hundreds of thousands of people fined in more than 1,000 courts are paying such fees. Private probation companies in Georgia collected almost $40 million in fees in 2012 alone, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

“Plain and simple, it’s a racketeering scheme where people are being extorted,” Brooke said. “The company is using the threat of jail. They are telling people if you don’t pay, you are going to go to jail. It’s clearly extortion because you can’t jail someone for not being able to pay.”

He also noted that private probation companies create a two-tiered justice system – one where people of means pay and go and one where low-income people ultimately pay more.

The “End of Debtors’ Prison Act of 2016” would withhold Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants from governments contracting with these companies. The SPLC endorses the legislation.