Judicial Correction Services (JCS), a private probation company, collected money from impoverished Alabamians by threatening them with jail when they fell behind on paying fines from traffic violations or other citations in the city of Clanton, Alabama. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit accusing JCS of violating federal racketeering laws. The lawsuit accuses JCS and local JCS manager Steven Raymond of violating the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act by extorting from probationers the monthly payments that include a fee for JCS. It also accuses these defendants and the city of Clanton of formalizing this relationship through an illegal contract that violates Alabama law prohibiting the charging of a probation fee in city court.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama on behalf of three Clanton residents, seeks damages for the injuries that they suffered and to void the contract between JCS and the city that’s at the heart of the scheme.
Under a contract first awarded in 2009, the city of Clanton put JCS in charge of collecting payments from people who appear in city court but cannot afford to pay their fines. This contract creates an exclusive franchise; it requires all probation cases to be assigned to JCS. It was not subjected to a public bid, as is required for exclusive-franchise contracts.
Individuals who cannot afford to pay city fines immediately are placed on “pay-only probation,” which means the sole purpose of their probation is the collection of the fines, fees and related court costs. They must first pay JCS a $10 “set-up” fee. They typically must appear in the JCS office once a month and pay $140. Out of that payment, $40 goes to JCS for its profits. When people fall behind on their payments, JCS continues to collect its fee, effectively extending people’s probation and guaranteeing JCS more money.
One of the plaintiffs, 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, which would result in jail time. Reynolds had already spent four days in jail for missing a court hearing, an experience that left her frightened and almost cost her job. She 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. Reynolds was finally able to pay off the debt – and the JCS fees – after 15 months by going without groceries, skipping numerous meals and ignoring her mounting medical and utility bills.