Poor People Catch Hell: Birmingham Caught in The Privatization Trap

The practice of granting probation to an offender is a highly regarded practice because it allows the court greater flexibility while affording offenders more time to pay fines, court courts and other fees assessed related to the infraction. What has recently come under scrutiny is the role of privatization in probationary services within the municipal courts in the State of Alabama.

Since 2009, the City of Birmingham Municipal Court has relied on a privatized probation program in order to increase collection of fine and court costs. The offender assigned to this privatized probation program is permitted to “pay” over time fines and court costs and any other fees assessed including the assorted costs associated with “supervision.” During the probationary period, which often extends up to 24 months, the offender may be ordered to take various classes which add yet more financial burden on the probationer.

Birmingham Municipal Court is one of many courts in Alabama that has contracted with Judicial Correction Services, a for-profit corporation. Judicial Correction Services (JCS) is one of these privately owned and operated probation companies; JCS is headquartered in Cummings, Georgia. According to its web site, law enforcement experience is embedded within the executives of JCS as both the CEO and the COO have extensive backgrounds in prosecution and probation.

JCS offers to take on the supervision and rehabilitation of probationers at no cost to the municipality. Also at no cost to the municipality, JCS takes on the role of collection agent for the fines and court costs assessed by the court. JCS has been operating in the southeast region of the United States for over ten years boasting of increased fine collection for municipalities. In 2006, JCS collected $6.5 million in revenue. Recently, their exposure has been increasing and they experienced a growth of 109% from 2006 to 2009. Their revenues reached $13.6 million in 2009 (source). In Alabama, JCS has 39 offices including Birmingham and Hoover. They also have offices in Georgia, Mississippi and Florida. Judicial Correction Services achieves its appeal because it charges nothing to the municipalities.

JCS employs over 300 individuals including probation officers and representatives that they send to procure more clients. Contracts are proposed to municipalities that outline their business model and services to be provided. In the Birmingham/JCS contract, there is a section entitled “Cost Proposal.” Within this section of the contract, JCS makes it very clear that they provide their services free of charge to the City of Birmingham (source). The only flow of revenue to JCS comes from the “defendant costs.” In fact, on the Judicial Correction Services website, the company sports slogans like, “fully offender-funded” and “costs nothing to the tax payers.”

The JCS fee schedule is published in its cost proposal. The tab can quickly add up over the period of months a probationer is under its supervision:

Basic Supervision Contract - $40.00 per month
Case Initiation Fee - $10.00 one time
Pre-Trial Diversion Program - $40.00 per month/$65.00 one time class fee
Electronic Monitoring - $7.00 per day/$14.00 per day (GPS Tracking)

These charges are in addition to the judge-ordered fines corresponding to the infraction. These court-imposed fines are collected by JCS and remitted to the governing Courts.
To understand the financial impact of these charges, one must understand that JCS probationers are often those who are already unable to pay the initial fine. Because of their financial status, they are likely under the representation of a court-appointed attorney. These individuals who were already unable to pay the fines are now being compelled to bear the burden of what could amount to as much as $54.00 per month, a $10.00 set-up fee, and a $65.00 mandatory class fees. Added to the original court-imposed fine, the price tag for a minor offense can ultimately reach thousands of dollars.
In a recent interview with former Presiding Judge of Birmingham Municipal Court, Raymond Chambliss lamented, “poor people catch hell.” Judge Chambliss contrasted the two systems. Some persons can afford to pay a $200.00 fine up front; and as a consequence their cases would be dismissed that day. But for those who cannot pay up front, they remain on probation, accumulating fees until such time as all fees are paid. Judge Chambliss was keenly aware of the modest means of many of those who appeared in his courtroom as well as the harsh impact of their assignment to privatized probation.

In 2010, when JCS contract for probation services was entered into by the City of Birmingham and approved by the Jefferson County Personnel Board, over 33% of Birmingham citizens had income below the poverty level (source). The state average for Alabama was 23%. Furthermore, in the inner city where Birmingham municipal court is located, there were several residential districts where 50 to 64% of the individuals have incomes below the poverty level. The determination of poverty level for an individual is yearly income below $11,170.00, or less than $930.00 per month. For a single mother, the poverty level is defined as yearly income below $15,130.00, or less than $1,260.00 per month (source). With monthly obligations for a home, food, transportation and all the other various costs of living, a person suddenly strapped with mounting probation fees could easily topple into financial crisis.

In a recent interview, NAACP Birmingham Metro Branch President Hezekiah Jackson shared his thoughts on the impact of privatization of probation in the Birmingham community. Mr. Jackson recognized that many people in Birmingham not only face economic struggles but have issues far more sad and debilitating. “In the month of June, I had 78 young men come through my program and only 10 of them could write their own name,” Jackson said. Most of the individuals he sees on a day-to-day basis are those who are continually running into the law. Many of them are locked into contracts with Judicial Correction Services for their probations. But what is the alternative? The only choices these young men face are pay or stay in jail.

“These people are preyed upon because they are those who will present the least resistance,” Birmingham Metro Branch NAACP President Jackson said. He continued, “To disenfranchise empowers the oppressor. The judicial system is the easiest venue for these people to be preyed upon because they are totally at the will of the decision maker.” He expresses concern that the system treats poor citizens caught in the privatization trap as “expendable human capital.” He explained that in his experience, the municipal court system is supported by this human capital, and JCS is the “cleanup crew” sanctioned by the government to collect the fines and accumulate the revenue.

Jackson contends that this callous treatment of the “least of these” is a violation of human rights and in contravention of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. His point is well taken. Imprisoning individuals because of debt has been exposed and ruled on by Supreme Court in Bearden v. Georgia 461 U.S 660 in 1983 (source). The Supreme Court was clear in its interpretation of the 14th Amendment and held that jailing someone based solely on their inability to pay fines or restitution denied that individual the right of equal protection under the law. If and only if the defendant willfully failed to meet payment requirements or if it was discovered that the defendant failed to make bona fide attempts to achieve employment, may he be incarcerated. Furthermore, Article I, Section 20 of the Alabama constitution states “that no person shall be imprisoned for debt.”(source)

Those who are empowered as judges certainly are familiar with their solemn duty to assure citizens of their constitutional rights regardless of their economic status. Yet, it appears that indigent citizens who pass through Birmingham courtrooms on a daily basis are assigned to complete probation with a private for-profit company. The inherent problems of a profit-venturing company in probation services in any municipality, particularly Birmingham, should be examined to assure that the rights of all citizens are protected, particularly those who are most vulnerable. “Free” to the municipal government is not free to the defendant. It adds a layer of cost which is exorbitant to those who can least afford to pay.

The Birmingham City Council surely understood this, or perhaps not based on the comments heard during the Council meeting when the contract was approved in 2009. The verbal exchange between the council members reveal an overriding concern with costs and little as to the needs of its citizens whom they are to serve. Judge Raymond Chambliss affirmed that JCS has a tremendous reputation for fine collection and remarked that it was the main reason that their services were pursued (source).

Privatizing probation creates two judicial systems, especially in Birmingham where the poverty rate is extremely high. The indigent are relegated to a for-profit system that adds additional costs for “classes”, probation “fees” for up to two years. The life of the “judicial loan” is akin to a payday loan. The payday loan, however, does not carry the threat of incarceration as does the “probation loan.” Those who can pay their fines up-front avoid the circumstances of this vicious cycle. Those who have no means to pay are locked into a cycle of payment after payment for extended periods of time.

A 20-year veteran of the police force spoke of his experiences of often seeing people entrenched in a cycle of payment after payment. He would see the same individuals coming into Municipal Court to the payment window with explanations of why they were unable to meet the JCS demands, but their fees would keep accumulating. “If you don’t pay, they throw your ass in jail,” he said succinctly describing the "pay or stay" policy.

Municipalities succumbed to the siren's call of a for-profit company, agreeing to its pay-day terms at the ungodly expense of the fundamental principles of the U.S. States Constitution. The privatization of probation disproportionally harms the "least of these", whom we are called upon to be merciful.

Special recognition to contributors Bryant Hall, third-year law student at Cumberland Law School and Corey Young, a senior at Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania. Both Hall and Young are currently law clerks for Dr. Gayle Gear, a Birmingham attorney. Special thanks to the numerous others who shared personal insights into the issues associated with the harsh impact of privatization of probation services in municipal courts.