In 2010, four residents of Harpersville, Alabama filed suit against several local officials and private prison company Judicial Corrections Services, alleging that they were illegally imprisoned in the Shelby County jail.
The charges were alarming: the four inmates claim low income defendants are routinely denied adequate counsel, are not advised on their constitutional rights and — most egregiously — are saddled with outrageously high fines and bond rates that the indigent have no way of paying.
On Wednesday, Shelby County Circuit Court Judge Hub Harrington handed down his decision, and tore into the defendants:
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.
Judge Harrington goes on say that defendants appearing before the Harpersville Municipal Court are “subjected to repeated and ongoing violations of almost every safeguard afforded by the Unite[d] States Constitution, the laws of Alabama and the Rules of Criminal Procedure.”
At issue are the fines that JCS is authorized to impose if an individual convicted of a crime is not immediately able to pay the imposed fine. That person is placed on “probation,” and JCS begins to collect an additional $35 fee every day the individual does not pay in full his or her penalty. If the mounting debt is not paid, JCS forwards the case back to the court and the person is imprisoned for “probation violations” with no adjudication.
The ruling, which enjoined the court and JCS from further imprisoning probation violators and added a 30 day grace period for individuals to pay off a court-ordered penalty before JCS begins to charge their $35 fee, highlights yet another problem with states’ growing reliance on private companies to run corrections services.
In Florida, lawmakers who accepted thousands of dollars from private prison companies have passed legislation to expand private prison contracts, in Arizona Governor Jan Brewer accepted more than $60,000 from another private prison company in exchange for favorable legislation, and in Pennsylvania, a judge was sentenced to 28 years in prison after it was revealed he channeled hundreds of young people into privately run juvenile detention facilities in exchange for lofty payouts.