Judge Blasts Alabama “Debtor’s Prison”

A county judge in Alabama has had enough of a private probation company that passes on fees for its work to people convicted of crimes and then imprisons them when they can’t pay.

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.


Related Stories:

Citizens Jailed For Owing Debt

Sen. Franken Wants To Curb Abusive Collections Practices

Photo from mikecogh via flickr.


Stanley Rampersad
Stanley Balgobin6 years ago

If the GOP get into power, the 99% will all be in debtor prisons.

Dale Overall

Ron B is right, certainly the privatization of prisons has become an entire industry, growing at an alarming rate within the U.S. The concept of a Debtor's Prison is frightening and certainly the poor bear the brunt of these industries, something that should be only under governmental control. Making a profit is what private industry is all about and this goes back to the Middle Ages in Europe and even back to around 600 BC when ancient Athenians were sold into slavery from economic troubles plaguing society.

Wonder if the current inmates in Alabama are required to pay for their keep like the Debtor's Prisons of Yore? Perhaps charging them for blankets, mattresses, shackles and adding leg irons would increase profit, along with using water for bathing and drinking and a flush toilet. Privatize everything in Alabama and then extend these charges to the entire citizenry, charging for each time one flushes the home toilet, drinking from the tap...use of a mattress in the home. The sky is the limit!

Leah H.
Leah H6 years ago

This is what happens when you privatize public functions. The public correctional facilities in this country are bad enough as they are, add a profit motive and it is modern day slavery.

diana malko
diana malko6 years ago


diana malko
diana malko6 years ago


Mary S.
Mary S7 years ago

How can they possible pay off their debt if they are in prison and can't work? Kinda like the dog that catches it's own tail, where do I go from here?

Gloria picchetti
Gloria picchetti7 years ago

How much does debtors prison cost the taxpayer?

Vicky Pitchford
Vicky P7 years ago

horrible, if someone can't pay, they shouldn't go to jail..

Kasia Y.
Kasia Y.7 years ago

The persons responsible for the prison should be publically executed. There is no excuse for this violation of human rights.

Its probably also a good idea to send the military into the south to clear out all the red necks too.

Cathleen K.
Cathleen K7 years ago

Time to tell the South it's free to go. They've never gotten over losing the Civil War; let's make everyone happy and give them a do over.