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December 21, 2015

Federal judge enjoins Tennessee county's privatized probation system operating like debtors' prison

As reported in this local article, "Judge's order frees 13 held for not paying probation fees," a group of probationers got a holiday gift in the form of a significant federal judicial order preventing a locality for jailing low-level offenders for failing to pay fines or court costs. Here are the basics:

Heather Keller is looking forward to spending Christmas with her children after a federal judge's order set her free from the Rutherford County Detention Center Friday afternoon. A day earlier, a federal judge in Nashville granted an injunction that prevented officials and probation supervisors in Rutherford County from holding people in jail for certain violations or only because they could not pay fees. It also said that anyone being held for those reasons should be let go.

Keller, 35, was one of 13 inmates released from the jail in Murfreesboro who were held there because they could not pay fees to the private company contracted to oversee the Rutherford County misdemeanor probation system. The injunction that won Keller’s release was part of a lawsuit filed against Providence Community Corrections, which has changed its name to Pathways Community Corrections.

The suit was filed in October and accuses Rutherford County and PCC of working together to extort people on probation there by charging excessive fees. Many of the seven people named in the lawsuit rely on government assistance and have said in court testimony or documents that PCC's excessive fees leave them struggling to pay bills and facing extended probation terms because they cannot pay court costs.

It is a practice Alec Karakatsanis, attorney for the plaintiffs, likens to the operation of a debtors' prison. Karakatsanis said Sharp's order is only the beginning of possible probation reform in Rutherford County.

“We will fight to end permanently what we believe to be the rise of a modern debtors' prison system in which the poor and destitute are jailed and threatened with jail solely because of their inability to make monetary payments to a private company and their local government,” Karakatsanis said. “This is a very important ruling for impoverished people in Tennessee.”

The injunction was granted by Chief District Judge Kevin Sharp in Nashville. In addition to freeing these prisoners, Sharp also ordered PCC immediately stop the practice of violating probationers solely for non-payment of fees.

Keller was originally arrested for driving on a suspended license and since has been jailed twice for non-payment of probation fees, she said. “I’ve spent more time in jail for non-payment than the original charge,” Keller said.

And Sharp ordered Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold to free any inmates held on violation of probation charges stemming solely from non-payment of fees and fines.

The federal district judge's 20-page injunction order in Rodriguez v. Providence Community Corrections is available for download here:  Download Opinion Granting Injunction

December 21, 2015 at 10:19 AM | Permalink


The tacking on of non-punitive fees, unrelatd to the offense was not addressed.

I am looking at a receipt of a fine of $582.11 for disorderly conduct. It includes items as Constable Education Training Act, Crime Victims Compensation, Domestic Violence Compensation, Miscellaneous Issuances (not specified), 2 Server Fees, State Court Costs (case was in a county court), Title 18, ATJ, CJES, JCPS, with no asterisk to the spelling out of what those initials mean, and my personal favorite, Judicial Computer Project.

The problem with the collection of these fees irrelevant to the punishment for the crime include,

1) violation of the separation of powers implied in the state constitution;

2) conflict of interest of the judge, who is now pimping for the Executive Branch Department of Revenue, threatening to imprison the defendant for failure to pay these tax and government fee revenues;

3) biasing of the judge who may get rated by his "productivity" of money making for the government.

I have described sitting in a New Jersey traffic court and watching every one plead guilty to careless driving, $400, no points, every 2 minutes for several hours, making $20,000 in a morning.

I have described a federal injunction against a county charging out of county traffic defendants up to $2000 in fees for running a stop sign, with the penalty being $25, and the rest from renting of the police car, paying for the officer's time, the clerk's time, the rental of computer equipment, etc. The county was enjoined, but not forced to disgorge its unjust enrichment.

The immunities of these government entities is at the root of this unfair, corrupting, and racketeering practice.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 21, 2015 12:04:35 PM

It is time to start jailing the judges who jail people over bogus fines and court costs.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Dec 22, 2015 8:58:33 AM

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