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October 2, 2015

"How to Fight Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons? Sue the Courts."

EJUL-slide-3The title of this post is the headline of this Marshall Project report on recent litigation brought by Alex Karakatsanis and his Equal Justice Under Law non-profit. Here is the start of the report (with links from original):

A young civil-rights attorney in Washington, D.C., is suing courts across the country for jailing defendants unable to afford their bail, court fines, and probation fees.  As a result, cities in Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana have recently done away with bail for misdemeanors and traffic violations.

The lawyer, 31-year-old Alec Karakatsanis, has now filed a federal lawsuit against Rutherford County, Tenn. and the private company it contracts with to collect court debts. According to the lawsuit, that company, Providence Community Corrections, ran “an extortion scheme” that “conspired to extract as much money as possible” from people who were threatened with jail time if they couldn’t pay court fees and fines.

PCC is “user funded,” which means the company does not charge the county for its services but depends solely on fees paid for by people on probation.  Some of those fees include “supervision fees,” costs for drug tests and classes, and even a $25 fee for those applying for fee reductions. Before Rutherford County outsourced its probation services to PCC in 1996, the county was only collecting a fraction of fees, PCC State Director Sean Hollis told the Daily News Journal in 2014.

PCC collected over $17 million from probationers in Rutherford County between 2009 and 2014, according to the Daily News Journal. Rutherford County Judge Ben Hall McFarlin told the paper at that time: “The county didn't pay for anyone to get that money," adding that he had never sentenced anyone to jail if their only violation was a failure to pay. "I don't see where the taxpayers would disagree with that.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven plaintiffs and alleges that indigent defendants in Rutherford County have lost their jobs, houses, cars, and even sold their own blood plasma to make payments and avoid jail time.

“Everything about this scheme is in flagrant violation of U.S. constitutional law, federal law, and even specific Tennessee law,” Karakatsanis told The Marshall Project. In Tennessee, it’s illegal to imprison a person over court debt.  

The suit was brought under a federal anti-corruption law accusing PCC and Rutherford County of operating a “racketeering enterprise” that misuses “the probation supervision process for profit.” A spokesman for PCC, Jeff Hahn, wrote in a statement that PCC's "mission is to encourage people to complete their probation successfully per the terms set by the courts." He added that "in each of the states we serve, we steadfastly comply with the laws governing the probation system."

It’s just the latest salvo from Karakatsanis, who helped start Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit civil-rights organization. Karakatsanis and co-founder Phil Telfeyan, 32, started their organization in 2014 with a grant from their alma mater, Harvard Law School, in order to challenge inequalities in the criminal justice system. The organization often works in partnership with local attorneys and nonprofits.

In November 2014, the city of Montgomery, Ala., agreed to terminate its contract with a private probation company as part of a settlement with Equal Justice Under Law.  The lawsuit alleged that indigent people in Montgomery were being jailed over their inability to pay their court debts.  Similar lawsuits were filed in 2015 against municipal courts in Ferguson, Mo., Jennings, Mo. and New Orleans, La., although those cities do not rely on private probation companies to collect debts.

Equal Justice Under Law has also sued six jurisdictions over their bail systems, and all six no longer require defendants to pay bail as a condition of their release. The organization filed a seventh lawsuit, in Calhoun, Ga., in early September.

October 2, 2015 at 09:48 AM | Permalink


Suing states and other jurisdictions will become a hobby, and my retirement activity. Beats fishing and golf (with apologies to Prof. Berman). It is how I relax and forget my real troubles. So I will be reviewing the links carefully. I may even be able to add some additional issues and approaches.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 2, 2015 7:27:14 PM

Yes. Sue the f***ing courts until there is meaningful reform! Those indifferent to the broken criminal justice system, that has stripped the peoples' rights away, deserve to pay through the nose.

Posted by: Concerned Citizen | Oct 15, 2015 7:30:31 PM

You go, Alex! We need more people like you. We can't wait for the "good ole boys" will have to die off, who created the barriers, since the Civil Rights Act.

Posted by: Concerned Citizen | Oct 15, 2015 7:33:38 PM

correction: We can't wait for the "good ole boys" to die off, to restore our lost rights, gained during the Civil Rights Act.

Posted by: Concerned Citizen | Oct 15, 2015 7:35:08 PM

I know police and courts have been doing this for years and I read that the judges supposedly just didn't know that they couldn't jail people because they were poor. How could any judge set on the bench and not know the law???? This is plainly a definite pattern of corrupt activity and these people should be locked up for racketeering because that's what it is.

Posted by: thomasedwin | Dec 4, 2015 11:46:35 PM

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