The private company Professional Probation Services (PPS) has a contract with a municipal court judge and the city of Gardendale, Alabama to illegally place defendants who cannot pay their fines and court costs on probation. The Southern Poverty Law Center sued on Oct. 23, 2017 in federal district court on behalf of defendants Gina Harper and Jennifer Essig, who were placed on probation and jailed after they could not pay their fines and court costs.
The lawsuit argues that PPS, acting as a probation supervisor, owes a duty of neutrality and objectivity to those it supervises, but instead acts only to maximize profits, including the $40 monthly fee it charges to defendants who are under its supervision.
The SPLC also filed a judicial ethics complaint on Oct. 24, 2017 against Municipal Court Judge Kenneth Gomany for delegating judicial functions to PPS without ensuring constitutional due process when placing people on probation, or sending them to jail for non-compliance with probationary requirements.
The lawsuit seeks damages and an order preventing the city, the judge and PPS from enforcing the contract and preventing the company from continuing to impose and collect its monthly fees.
The ethics complaint against the judge also alleges that Gomany failed to protect other constitutional rights of defendants in his court, by failing to provide counsel to those who could not afford it, and failing to provide interpreters to those who did not speak English, among other violations.
Harper, who lives paycheck to paycheck to support herself and her autistic son, was placed on probation with PPS in March 2017 when she couldn’t pay the $715 that Gomany assessed her for fines and fees. She had pleaded guilty to driving on a revoked driver’s license and was also sentenced to 48 hours in jail. She has paid $90 and still owes almost $900—only $715 of which is for fines and court costs. The rest is owed to PPS for its monthly fees.
Essig was placed on probation in July 2017 after she was sentenced to a $50 fine and $232 in court costs for trespassing. Essig told the judge she could pay $40, but not the entire amount right away, because she is on a fixed income and living in a motel. Without asking about her income and expenses, the judge ordered her onto probation with PPS to pay the remainder. PPS charged her for four months’ worth of service fees—$160—even though she was on probation for only two and a half months.