Judge Blasts Alabama “Debtor’s Prison”
In a blistering order in connection with a lawsuit filed by four residents of Harpersville, Alabama against several local officials and Judicial Corrections Services, a private prison company, Shelby County Circuit Court Judge Hub Harrington pulled no punches in going after the practices by JCS and Harpersville officials.
At issue are fines that JCS is authorized to levy in an individual convicted of a crime is not immediately able to pay the imposed fine. That person is then placed on “probation” and JCS begins to collect an additional $35 every day the individual does not fully pay his or her penalty. Inevitably the debt mounts up and which point JCS forwards the case back to the court and the person is jailed for “probation violations” without any trial or adjudication of any sort.
The practices are troubling at best and criminal at worst. From the order:
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.
According to the court, defendants that appear before the Harpersville Municipal Court are “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.”
Debtors prisons were generally viewed as anathema to basic constitutional protections, especially given the motive for abuse jailing citizens for profit would foster. Like the other private prison scandals this latest story is another example of why our criminal justice system cannot be outsourced to for-profit enterprises–the potential for abuse is simply too great and any available oversight too remote.
For now JCS is enjoined from further imprisoning probation violators and must add a 30 day grace period for individuals to pay off a court-ordered penalty before JCS can begin to charge their $35 fee.
Photo from mikecogh via flickr.