Selling blood plasma. Forgoing rent payments and getting evicted. Turning over all of the government benefits that a family relies on to eat.
These are just some of the ways residents of Rutherford County, Tennessee say they have responded to the private probation system that they allege illegally extorts money from them, even though they are so poor they can’t afford to pay.
On Thursday, lawyers with the non-profit Equal Justice Under Law and law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwall, & Berkowitz PC filed a suit against the county and against the private probation company, Providence Community Corrections, Inc. (PCC), alleging they “have conspired to extract as much money as possible from misdemeanor probationers through a pattern of illegal and shocking behavior.”
The suit describes a system in which people who are convicted of low-level traffic or misdemeanor offenses — such as driving with a suspended license, shoplifting, or possession of marijuana — are assessed with fines and court costs without taking into account their ability to pay. And the county, the lawsuit claims, has a stake in assessing higher amounts because the money funds its own budget.
Those who can pay in full are generally placed on unsupervised probation. But those who can’t are put on supervised probation under the authority of PCC, as the private, for-profit company has sole control of the misdemeanor probation system in the county. PCC, for its part, only makes profit from the money it is able to extract from the people on probation, according to the suit, and gets nothing from the county itself. This gives it “a direct financial stake in every decision and outcome in any individual’s probation case,” the lawsuit reads.
“It’s an extortion racket with the threat of jail and arrest,” Alec Karakatsanis, co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law, told ThinkProgress.
People on probation have to pay PCC a number of regular fees on top of what they owe the court: $45 a month simply for being on probation, $20 for every drug test administered at the will of PCC probation officers, setup fees, community service fees, and others, all of which create profit for PCC. The suit even alleges that the company has been caught adding additional unlawful fees like a “picture fee.” It can also set up rules at its own discretion and extract more payments from those who break them. The probationers are threatened with arrest and jail if they don’t make payments. “As a matter of everyday routine, employees threaten probationers with jail and revocation [of their probation terms] in order to ensure larger collection by probation officers,” the lawsuit says.
The money they come up with doesn’t necessarily go toward paying off the original court debts and fees, though. Instead, PCC can decide to pay itself first rather than put it toward reducing debts, often leading to extensions in their probations, even if they have already paid the full amount originally owed. As one example, despite paying a total of $1,843, plaintiff Yolanda Carney claims she ended up owing $200 more than her original court costs because PCC put $1,300 in its own coffers and hit her with extra surcharges.
All of this ends up “trapping probationers in a cycle of debts, arrest, extended supervision, jail, and more debts,” the lawsuit says. “In the year 2015, these practices have no place in our society.”
Jeff Hahn, a lawyer representing PCC, sent a statement via email saying, “Providence Community Corrections’ mission is to encourage people to complete their probation successfully per the terms set by the courts, and while we have not yet been formally notified nor had time to review this case, what we can say is that in each of the states we serve, we steadfastly comply with the laws governing the probation system.” Officials from neither Rutherford County nor Providence Service Corporation, which owns PCC, could be reached for comment.
The financial hardship experienced by those caught in the system is laid out in detail. “Plaintiffs and others similarly situated have lost their housing, lost jobs, lost cars, undergone humiliating physical intrusions on their bodies, suffered severe medical injuries, sold their own blood plasma, sacrificed food and clothing for their vulnerable children, and/or diverted their low-income disability checks—all in order to pay private ‘supervision fees,'” the lawsuit states. “This cycle of ever-increasing debts, threats, and imprisonment has left the Plaintiffs and thousands of people like them in Rutherford County trapped in a culture of fear and panic.”
One plaintiff, Cindy Rodriguez, who was arrested for shoplifting at a grocery store, says she broke a tooth at one point months ago but hasn’t fixed it because she doesn’t have the money, and she lost her car after putting off payments in order to pay PCC. Rodriguez spent nearly a year on probation with PCC, and while her original court costs were $578, and she paid nearly that entire amount, the company applied just $66 to that debt, meaning she still owes the court $512.
Paula Pullum suffers from multiple health conditions: a paralyzed bladder that requires the use of a catheter, severe stomach problems that require a special diet, a heart medication that requires medication, plus past experiences with breast cancer, severe back and neck injuries, and three hip replacements. She was so scared of being jailed for failure to pay PCC, afraid she would die in jail because of her medical needs, that she skipped rent payments, resulting in her eviction. She eventually paid PCC more than $1,000 before her case was resolved.
Steven Gibbs relies solely on income from his Social Security disability benefits and struggles to afford food, shelter, utilities, and clothing, yet tried to pay PCC at least $5 every time he was scheduled for a visit because he feared being thrown in jail. His fears came true anyway: after his first probationary period ended, he still owed money — including fees assessed by PCC — and he was jailed at the company’s request. While in jail he was denied an inhaler required to treat his emphysema and was denied medical care for his severe arthritis, which almost led to his death. Yet even after he was released he was unable to pay and now faces more jail time.
“Everyone is absolutely petrified there,” Karakatsanis said.
The lawsuit also alleges that probation officers are trained not to help probationers reduce their fees and debts due to indigence and even charge a fee to begin the process of petitioning the court. Curtis Johnson, who suffered injuries after falling from scaffolding during construction work, survives mostly on food stamps, has no bank account, car, or assets, and is facing eviction. But after repeated inquiries and obtaining an indigency application, his PCC probation officer rejected it on the grounds that he hadn’t yet paid the company enough money.
The incidents that occurred in Rutherford County, as described by the lawsuit, are not likely isolated. PCC operates in 45 states and has been sued for similar practices before. Other private probation companies have come under legal scrutiny for following the same actions.
They are also reminiscent of the rise of modern-day debtors’ prisons, in which those who can’t pay their court debts are jailed but those who have money can walk free without any assessment of whether they even have the ability to pay in the first place. But as with the lawsuit against Rutherford County and PCC, there is a growing legal movement to push back on these practices as unconstitutional violations of people’s rights.