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.