Clanton residents settle lawsuit with private probation company

Three people in Clanton, Alabama, who were threatened with jail by the private probation company when they fell behind on fines from traffic violations or other misdemeanor citations, have resolved their claims against Judicial Correction Services (JCS).

The settlement stems from the SPLC’s federal lawsuit, filed in March 2015, that accused JCS of violating federal racketeering laws by extorting monthly payments from probationers. The terms of the agreement are confidential.

“JCS is no longer doing business in the state of Alabama because cities recognized that its predatory, illegal practices had no place in their courts," said Sara Zampierin, SPLC senior staff attorney. "Unfortunately, some local governments continue to contract with private probation companies. We urge officials to ensure their court systems do not allow private companies to prey on those who can least afford it.”

The city of Clanton in 2009 contracted with JCS to collect payments from people who could not afford to pay fines and fees levied by the city court. Those unable to pay were placed on “pay-only probation,” the sole purpose of which was the collection of court debt. Each offender had to pay JCS a $10 “set-up” fee, then appear in a JCS office at least once a month to pay $145. Out of that monthly payment, $40 went to JCS for its profits. When people fell behind on their payments, JCS continued to collect its fee and required people to report more frequently in order to demand the money, effectively extending people’s probation and guaranteeing JCS more money.

One plaintiff, Roxanne Reynolds, struggled to make her payments to JCS over traffic fines. Reynolds, a technician on an auto parts assembly line, was unable to work for weeks and months at a time due to her multiple sclerosis. JCS threatened to revoke her probation and send her to jail. She had already spent four days in jail for missing a court hearing, a frightening experience that almost cost Reynolds her job.

Reynolds was told by a JCS official that her medical condition was no excuse for not paying. Reynolds was terrified of being jailed, convinced that she would lose her job and the health insurance it provided. She paid off her debt of more than $1,600, in addition to more than $600 in JCS fees, after 15 months – but only by going without groceries some weeks and ignoring mounting medical bills.

Reynolds explained the depth of fear caused by JCS’ tactics, which are similar to other for-profit probation companies that prey on the poorest of the poor. “Anytime I left the JCS building, I would break down and cry,” Reynolds said. “I know I would go to jail if I couldn’t pay them. If I went to jail, I would lose my job and health insurance.”

After filing suit against JCS, the SPLC urged almost 100 municipalities to end their contracts with the company. In a letter to cities, the SPLC that warned that the contracts were illegal and JCS’s tactics can amount to extortion. More than 100 cities across the state have now canceled their contracts (see map here).