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Alabama city holds 'Amnesty Week,' part of SPLC settlement of federal lawsuit over private probation scheme

The city of Gardendale, Alabama, today began a week in which it will allow people who are facing municipal offenses to clear their cases, without being arrested.

“Amnesty Week,” which takes place from today through Friday, April 12, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., is among the results of a settlement of a federal class action lawsuit filed by the SPLC. The settlement required new policies and procedures to protect court defendants from abusive court-debt collection and probation practices, among other provisions.

The settlement also called for the city and its municipal court to cut ties with a private probation company that ran an illegal, profit-driven, private probation scheme in the city by exploiting low-income defendants and violating their federal constitutional and state rights.

“This private, for-profit company used the threat of the court system to squeeze exorbitant amounts of money out of people who could not afford to pay fines or costs for minor offenses,” said Emily Early, staff attorney for the SPLC. “However, the Constitution guarantees every citizen a just and unbiased adjudication, probation supervision, and handling of their cases. This company violated that right. Our settlement with the city and its municipal court has established new practices and procedures – including this Amnesty Week – that will ensure that the court does not punish individuals for their economic status, including reasonable payment plans based on court-conducted ability-to-pay assessments.”

During Amnesty Week, all individuals who are facing warrants from the city of Gardendale for their failure to appear or pay for fines, costs, fees, or other charges in response to a subpoena, summons, or order issued by the Gardendale Municipal Court, will be allowed to settle their cases without being incarcerated.

People who have outstanding fines, costs, fees or other charges, or who have failed to appear on municipal court charges, are encouraged to present themselves during this week to the court to obtain a new court hearing date to resolve their cases.

The SPLC’s lawsuit, filed on behalf of Catherine Regina Harper, Jennifer Essig, Shannon Jones, and a class of similarly situated persons – all of whom were victimized by the scheme – describes how the city and Municipal Court Judge Kenneth Gomany required anyone who could not afford to pay their fines or court costs in full to be placed on probation with Professional Probation Services, Inc. (PPS).

In addition to collecting the court-imposed fines and court costs, PPS charged and collected from individuals on probation with them a monthly service fee, typically $40, all of which went to PPS, and none of which applied to their fines and costs. PPS controlled the length of time supervisees were on probation, extending the term of probation when people fell behind on payments and collecting its fee first when partial payments were made.

When individuals could not afford to pay, PPS set more frequent check-in meetings, as well as “review” hearings, where the company informed the municipal court that a person had not paid or missed check-in appointments, often resulting in an order of detention for several days. The settlement agreement resolved the legal claims against the city and Gomany. The claims filed against PPS are still open.

Anyone who wishes to take advantage of the Amnesty Week program may do so by contacting the Gardendale Municipal Court at 205-631-7155. Or, they may appear in person to the magistrate at the municipal court, at 1309 Decatur Highway, Gardendale, Alabama, between today and Friday, April 12.

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