The Marshall Project has published an in-depth look at The Justice Network’s lawsuit against two Craighead County judges who have tried to end the Memphis based for-profit company’s scheme of charging those on probation high fines under the threat of jail time.
As we’ve written before, Judges Tommy Fowler and David Boling ran for office campaigning against The Justice Network, saying it unfairly preyed on the poor in a “debtor’s prison”-like system. Once elected, they put forward an amnesty program that took effect in July 2017 and began easing sentences.
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But, in June, The Justice Network sued to get the money it says it was contractually promised. (Read the lawsuit here.)
The Marshall Project sums up the question, and implications, of that lawsuit:
Does a company have a constitutional right to contracts that judges find violate public policy or the Constitution itself? And, if so, can a company sue for money damages from those officials for whatever profits it lost from losing the right to enforce those contracts?
The story here isn’t that a private probation company engaged in predatory tactics. That’s become a commonplace feature of our justice system. The story is that a company that consigned many residents of Craighead County to hopelessness considers itself the victim.
The Marshall Project does a good job of making concrete how private probation first comes to a locale and can silently rack up charges for small crimes.
To reduce public expenses on probation enforcement, local officials outsource the work to private probation companies. The companies have a monopoly; there is no “public option,” you might say. When a resident gets into a little trouble with the law — say a speeding ticket — the judge orders probation and a fine, and the company takes over. The defendant signs what amounts to a one-sided contract. If that original fine isn’t paid, the contract allows the company to impose new fees and fines using the threat of jail as a cudgel to force payment.
One day in August 2016, Boling had 34 defendants before him and only six were accused of crimes; the rest all were there to deal with not complying with The Justice Network.
From this, the company profited.
From 1997 until earlier this year The Justice Network had an exclusive deal, a very profitable one. The company, based in Tennessee, says it employed 12 people to handle the crush of business — millions of dollars in revenue over the years. The company says it charged defendants a $35 monthly fee for “probation services” and a $15 monthly fee for “the supervision of public service work.” In 2011, local media reported, the company collected $556,548 in fees.
In Arkansas, state-run probation and parole can also cost if a judge orders electronic monitoring.
“The offender pays an electronic monitoring fee of $2 per day – $60 per month. It costs [Arkansas Community Corrections] approximately $2.85 per day from Satellite Tracking of People, which means ACC assumes part of the cost for all offenders,” according to Dina Tyler, a spokesperson for ACC.
*Here’s more on debtor’s prisons in general from The Marshall Project. They’re illegal — kind of — in the United States. The issue is that, while debtor’s prisons have long been disallowed, there are still consequences for not paying fines in a “willful” manner.
*Here is a quote from another thorough article discussing the problems with private probation companies:
Between court fees, fees paid to probation companies, and in some cases, fees for electronic monitors, defendants can end up paying two or three or five times what they would’ve originally owed in fines. Activists and legal advocates have started to pay attention to the growing industry.
*And, lastly, the incomparable Sarah Stillman has a great article discussing the whole industry called “Get Out of Jail, Inc.”