Alabama Judge Slams Private Debtors Prison

Alabama Judge Slams Private Debtors Prison July 17, 2012

A state judge in Alabama has ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a case challenging the authority of private companies to imprison those who can’t pay probation fees imposed on them if they’re too poor to pay fines as part of a criminal punishment.

If a poor defendant can’t immediately pay a fine imposed by a court, they are placed on probation and under the authority of a private company called Judicial Corrections Services. JCS then charges $35 a day, in addition to the original fine that they couldn’t pay. And then, when they predictably can’t pay even more than they couldn’t pay initially, they get to throw them in jail for violating their probation. Shelby County Circuit Court Judge Hub Harrington minces no words in describing the situation:

When viewed in a light most favorable to Defendants, their testimony concerning the City’s court system could reasonably be characterized as the operation of a debtors prison. The court notes that these generally fell into disfavor by the early 1800′s, though the practice appears to have remained common place in Harpersville. From a fair reading of the defendants’ testimony one night ascertain that a more apt description of the Harpersville Municipal Court practices is that of a judicially sanctioned extortion racket. Most distressing is that these abuses have been perpetrated by what is supposed to be a court of law. Disgraceful.

Defendants’ depositions present virtually undisputed evidence that criminal defendants appearing before the Harpersville Municipal Court have been subjected to repeated and ongoing violations of almost every safeguard afforded by the United States Constitution, the laws of Alabama and the Rules of Criminal Procedure. The admitted violations are so numerous as to defy a detailed chronicling in this short space.

The city has repeatedly told the court that they are fixing that unconstitutional system, but they have failed to do so. Judge Harrington has now taken control of that process and forbidden the city from jailing anyone in such a situation without a specific order from the court. Good. This needs to happen all over the country. You can read the full ruling here.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • ArtK

    … repeated and ongoing violations of almost every safeguard afforded by the United States Constitution, the laws of Alabama and the Rules of Criminal Procedure. The admitted violations are so numerous as to defy a detailed chronicling in this short space.

    Ow! That’s gotta hurt! I love decisions like this where you know that the judge is holding back (judicial decorum, don’t you know), but still comes off harsh.

    I’d really like to understand the thought process behind the “probation fee” for a penurious defendant. Applying the blood-from-turnip principle, how does the private probation company’s business model work?

    “Gee, I’ll base my business on charging people a daily fee, when they’re in my care because they can’t pay, and when the debt gets high enough, I’ll put them in jail where they have even less opportunity to earn money and pay off the debut.”

    There’s got to be more to this business model, but I can’t for the life of me see what it is.

    It doesn’t seem to make economic sense for the municipality, either. They end up not only without the fine the defendant was supposed to pay, but feeding and housing the defendant for an extended period. Probably be cheaper in the long run to write off the fine or work out a payment plan. Even immediately jailing the defendant would end up being cheaper.

  • ischemgeek

    @ArtK This is wholly me pulling it out of the air here because I have not the time to do the research on it, but I remember reading about a scandal a while back where judges were getting payoffs by boot camps for teenagers and private run prisons to send teens there with harsh sentences. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same is happening here. Plus, if the poor person is stuck in an endless loop of poor -> can’t pay -> jail -> probation -> probation fee -> can’t pay -> etc, they get money from the government for providing probation, get to double dip with their fees if the person manages to scrape together the cash to pay it off, and if they also run or have stock in local prisons, they make money there when the poor person defaults, too.

  • d cwilson

    This is the judicial equivalent of a bitch slap.

  • subbie

    Regarding the efficacy of the system: people sometimes find additional resources that they didn’t first think of to pay a fine when facing the prospect of jail time. Of course, that extortion sometimes works doesn’t change the fact that it’s still extortion.

  • ischemgeek

    ^ Also: small nit pick: It’s $45/mo, not $35/day. According to the decision, it’s supposed to be $35/mo, but at some point was raised (which, though IANAL and therefore am not qualified to give legal advice or anything like that, seems immaterial as the judge appears to have ruled the fee itself unconstitutional by my reading of it).

    Also, I giggled at this part of the ruling:

    …it is hereby ORDERED that:

    2. The Mayor and every member of the Harperville City Council shall be present in person for the hearing of August 20, 2012, and shall appear at any and all subsequent hearings in this case until final resolution, or until further Order of the court. These individuals, who are the officials ultimately responsible for the operation of the City, may wish to consult with Mr. Ward regarding the consequences of one’s failure to appear, especially when actually ordered by a court to do so.

    (emphasis mine)

    The judge also called it an “extortion racket.”

  • eric

    Subbie: it would be one thing if the original case judge said ‘pay a fine or go to jail.’

    This case is more egregious because the original case judge has basically handed a collection agency the power to increase the fine* and jail people who don’t pay the original + increased amount.

    *By a huge amount, it seems to me. $35 a day in tracking and processing fees? IMO that’s so high that even if the government wanted to continue to use a collection agency, they should fire this particular collection agency for gross inefficiency and incompetence.

  • subbie

    eric, a judge cannot say “pay a fine or go to jail.” That is debtors prison. Failure to pay a fine is not sufficient grounds for incarceration without a finding of fact that the defendant has the ability to pay.

    My point, and it was not a defense of the practice in any way, shape, form or fashion, is that when facing incarceration, folks sometimes find additional ways to come up with the money. Of course, sometimes that additional way is criminal.

    I absolutely agree that this case is egregious in the extreme. It is because of abuses of this type that I’m vehemently opposed to government turning over any aspect of law enforcement to a private company. Law enforcement should never, ever, be about anyone turning a profit.

    Also, it appears that the fee wasn’t $35 a day, but a month (later raised to $45). This difference, of course, does not make the practice any less wrong.

  • jnorris

    Bah! Humbug!

  • eamick

    You would think a state that has the world’s longest constitution could bother to obey the voluminous laws it has created.

  • Ayyyy, fuhget about it!

  • TGAP Dad

    Now if we can just address assert forfeiture, warrantless wiretaps, drug-sniffing dogs, thermal-imaging cameras, publicly recording police activities…

  • left0ver1under

    This is just another form of enslaving the poor. They are duped into taking credit cards without any line of credit (and also exorbitant interest rates), they are lured into “rent to own” scams which overcharge for garbage, and they are tricked into “payday loan” scams which some never get out of.

    If legalized slavery of the poorest and least educated isn’t the goal, I’d like to know what companies and lawmakers think they are accomplishing by allowing this to happen.

  • anubisprime

    What a scam….can the judge order all payments made under this draconian claptrap to be returned forthwith?

    And could there be some severe repercussions for the Muppets or Muppet that thought this nonsense was a jolly good idea…like jail time for violating the constitution in such a manner?

  • Ben P

    eric, a judge cannot say “pay a fine or go to jail.” That is debtors prison. Failure to pay a fine is not sufficient grounds for incarceration without a finding of fact that the defendant has the ability to pay.

    From my experience in the prosecutor’s office I can tell you that’s not really true.

    What you describe is technically true for civil violations that can only result in fines/administrative penalties. There, the state can usually only add further fines or invoke further administrative penalties, garnish wages etc.

    However, most state criminal statutes allow fines and/or jail time as punishment for a conviction. It is exceedingly common for inmates to serve jail time in lieu of paying a fine assessed for a criminal conviction. Usually the credit is something like $100 a day.

  • Ben P

    I was going to add that I see a “serving time in lieu of paying a fine” to be something distinctly different from debtors prison.

    Historically debtors prisons referred to the ability to have a creditor seek imprisonment as a remedy for someone refusing to pay a debt. Today the only way you’re likely to end up in jail for failing to pay a civil debt is if the judge is convinced you have money and are hiding it, then he can find you in contempt of court and put you in prison.

    In this case the city outsourced its criminal probation to a private company. The private company was authorized to collect fees from the convicts for the probation services, and the probation conditions included paying the fees. If the convicts refused or could not pay the fees, the company would report them as in violation of their probation and they would go back into prison. It is in fact leveraging the power of the state to imprison to aid the collecting of a civil debt, i.e. a debtors prison.

  • Ben P “In this case the city outsourced its criminal probation to a private company.”

    Exactly. This is the kind of government we need. One that supports the Job Creators.

  • Ben P

    I’d really like to understand the thought process behind the “probation fee” for a penurious defendant. Applying the blood-from-turnip principle, how does the private probation company’s business model work?

    ischemgeek basically nailed it. It’s not dissimilar from the entities that run private prisons or court ordered counseling work.

    The company will usually get paid a per inmate cost that they have figured should support fixed costs and a slim profit margin. Then they have the right to recover fees for the service provided which in some cases are almost pure profit, depending on how tightly the city negotiated its contract.

    What happens a lot of times is that bureaucracies usually are pretty inefficient (it is the government after all) and a private company can substantially underbid what the city was paying itself while still leaving itself a healthy profit margin and no one really bothers to look at the details of how this is accomplished because, hey, there saving 15% or more on their prior costs.

  • Nibi

    ischemgeek

    @ArtK This is wholly me pulling it out of the air here because I have not the time to do the research on it, but I remember reading about a scandal a while back where judges were getting payoffs by boot camps for teenagers and private run prisons to send teens there with harsh sentences.

    Covered by our host here:

    PA Judges Plead Guilty to Selling Child Prisoners

  • Pingback: Gulf Coast Rising News | Alabama Judge Slams Private Debtors Prison | Dispatches from the …()

  • abb3w

    @5, ischemgeek:

    Also, I giggled at this part of the ruling:

    …such contempt of court potentially includes fines and/or jail, right?

    What do you want to bet that if any of them fail to toe the line, he fines them and uses their own debtors prison rules to govern the fine payment?

  • Artor

    I won’t be holding my breath, but it would be nice to see the private prison execs and the city officials responsible for this clusterfuck charged with false imprisonment. It looks to me like a scam to bleed the public coffers dry by paying fees to the private prison, while also providing them with a slave labor force.

  • jakc

    Thanks for bringing this out Ed because this is a serious and growing problem in this country. 50 years ago, the old joke was when a judge gave a man a choice of a fine or prison time he might choose prison(“30 days or $30” “Well, I’ve got more time than money judge”). As the statute typically allowed a fine or prison term for minor offenses, this was not “debtor’s prison” but just a consequence of being poor in America. We have ramped up the system: get arrested, and you’re going to have to pay a fee for an overnight stay in jail if you plead guilty (and in our current system where prosecutors routinely overcharge, where bail is denied and where you can plead guilty in one court appearance but will likely have to appear several times in order to get a trial), the room and board charges start to pile up. Lots of states will now pull your driver’s license for outstanding fees or prevent you from registering your car (leading to additional charges for driving without a license and often without insurance) Get released on parole or avoid jail with probation – saving the state money – and you have to pay supervision fees. Again, many people released from prison find that they have thousands of dollars in fees that have to be repaid before their right to vote is restored or before they can get a driver’s license. (I am sure that some Republican is working on a plan to pull the driver’s license/right to vote from people who are behind on their student loans.)I’m glad to see one judge stand up against the trend.

    I saw Mitt Romney speak once about private prisons – why, those bad old employee unions/Democrats/bureaucrats opposed private prisons in Massachusetts because they didn’t realize that unleashing the creativity of private enterprise would work wonders for the corrections system. I thought it an odd idea. Prisons are not the kind of enterprise that the profit motive makes more efficient: private prisons want more prisoners and more fees -that’s how they make money – and using the authority of the state to get more money from prisoners (and from their families!) is an extraordinary abuse. You wonder why I don’t take “republican libertarianism” very seriously? It’s because Republican libertarians don’t seem to be offended by these kinds of abuses.

    Sorry for getting so worked up, but let me tell you about one of the most egregious abuses of the prison system – the collect call. It’s perfectly understandable that prisons need to control the phone calls of prisoners but the use of collect calls has become corrupt. States typically get a kickback from the phone provider. Keep in mind, that most of these calls are going to be to families, the same family that is probably suffering because a parent is in jail and unable to pay child support. The family then not only pays for the call but pays an excessive amount part of which goes to the state. The “discounts” are based on call volume, and typically, both the state and phone company deny that there is any way to rebate the money to the family member paying for the call (who is of course DID NOT COMMIT THE CRIME) Maintaining family contact while someone is in prison is a good way to reduce recidivisim, but every month in this country, your state probably collects money from people in this very situation and due to the cost of the program probably reduces the amount of family contact. I’d have more respect for Corrections officials if they wore masks, carried guns and simply went to the homes of these families and collected the money directly.

  • Pingback: Slam Dunk For Alabama - Grasscity.com Forums()

  • F

    And a couple days in jail probably cost more than the fine and the “service fees”. Public and state lose no matter what, idiot private company wins no matter what.

  • I was told recently that somewhere in NY state a city’s practice of outsourcing parking violation’s collections had led to a standard of something like $100 for overtime parking. The fees collection entity (a for profit company) was splitting the fees with the city. An alert legislator put forward a bill to cap the tickets @ $50 and require that the city receive $49. No word on whether there’s been any movement in that direction.

  • mmfwmc

    Hi Ed,

    The ad box above your photo at the top right was showing a WoW advert with Chuck Norris in it. I got a picture if you want it 🙂

    Steve