Steve ran a stop sign. Deondre was drinking a beer on a friend’s porch. The police stopped Steve. The police stopped Deondre. The police told Steve it is illegal to run a stop sign. Steve said, “So what do we do now?” The police told Steve “now I give you a ticket.” The police told Deondre it is illegal to drink in public and they arrested him. Steve has a job and Steve paid his ticket. For 150 dollars, Steve’s story is over. Deondre was charged with public intoxication, a violation analogous to a traffic ticket. The public intoxication statute says violators are subject to a fine no greater than 200 dollars. Deondre couldn’t pay the fine. Deondre went on probation. It cost 80 dollars a month. Deondre went to drug court. It cost 1,500 dollars plus 1,200 dollars for court costs. Deondre went to substance abuse class. It cost 200 dollars.
The probation system exists to temper justice for the least among us. The intention that is society be made whole but not at the cost of a non-felony offender’s well being. Unfortunately for Deondre, privatization backed by a distorted set of financial incentives has turned probation from a just-but-fair accommodation into a rent-to-own style enticement where the unwitting trade their freedom for monthly payments.
In a series of articles, we will introduce you to citizens trapped in the system. One is a mother who now lives under the constant threat of arrest, because she must choose between her children and paying for “probation.” Through their stories you will learn about the two systems of justice in Birmingham. You will learn about the Boards that implemented these systems, the Judges that feed them, and the people that fuel them.
Judicial Correction Services (JCS) has been approved by the Jefferson County Personnel Board to contract with the City of Birmingham to provide probationary services. This approval came even though the City of Birmingham had qualified employees in the Probation Office of Municipal Court. The Personnel Board's job is to protect the jobs of merit employees. Apparently, the Personnel Board based its approval on the fact that Judicial Correction Services touts its services are "free" and cost neutral to the contracting government; no weight was given to the employees who were "encouraged" to retire while the Parole Office was eliminated and merged into the operating division of Municipal Court. While it may be true that the City of Birmingham never has to issue a check to JCS, the services do not come "free" to those unfortunate enough to find themselves subject to the Birmingham Municipal Court's tactics to assist in funding JCS.
A typical day in the halls of Municipal Court finds an overwhelming number of people jockeying for position in one of the overcrowded courtrooms. Bailiffs shout out instructions to the crowd to locate their names on the posted dockets and to take their places in the appropriate courtrooms after proceeding through the metal detector. The crowds seemed to consist of many people who had to leave their jobs to attend court as they were still in their uniforms; many mothers with small children were also in attendance.
As names were called in Traffic Court, the defendants took their places in front of the judge. Those who could pay their fines were allowed to do so and went on their way. Many of those who could not pay were ordered to JCS by the judge. An air of disrespect and indifference for the defendants permeated the courtroom as they were brought up before the judge. The defendants could not help but feel the less-than-worthy attitude exhibited toward them; despair was on many of their faces as they listened to the judge talk to them in a demeaning manner. Others feeling they may have caught a break by receiving probation with JCS would soon learn they had actually received a punishment far worse than the violation they had committed. A follow-up report on the full effect of the Court-sanctioned charges of JCS is forthcoming.
Those defendants sentenced to Judicial Correction Services were done so with little apparent regard for their possible indigent status. The contract with the City is specific that JCS's services should only be utilized for non-indigent defendants. The City of Birmingham has a contract with Legal Aid whereby there is a qualified person in the court to assist those defendants who are indigent. In addition to Legal Aid (as was reported some months ago in the Birmingham News), the City uses the Fair Trial collections to pay outside attorneys to assist indigent defendants. A review of a large number of records indicated most of those defendants were pled out by the indigent defense attorneys. The indigent defendant referred by the Court to JCS “supervision” is likely to fail as a result of the increased costs - not the intended purpose of probation at all.
In an attempt to fully understand the role of JCS at Birmingham's Municipal Court and their operations, a meeting was scheduled with Presiding Judge Andra Sparks and Corey Young, a college intern investigating the impact of privatization of probationary services. Judge Sparks granted the interview but made it abundantly clear he would not discuss privatized probation in Birmingham's courts as that was too much of a "hot topic." He also did not care to discuss the topic with someone he said could be a reporter. Judge Sparks did concede that by outsourcing the services of probation, a government could save money in a time of dwindling judicial budgets because the services were free. He did not express any concern that the fees JCS outlines in their contract could be onerous on defendants and hurt those who can least afford to be hurt. Judge Sparks would not discuss any specifics of the JCS operation in the Birmingham courts and asked this intern to leave the building.
Not able to be addressed at the meeting were questions related to the contract entered into by the City and JCS, a contract approved by the Jefferson County Personnel Board. The contract JCS has with the City requires them to submit monthly reports to the City's Finance Department; specifically, the contract named Henry Young as the person designated to receive the reports. Because Judge Sparks terminated the interview, there was no opportunity to question him about those reports. Questions which should be asked of an entity contracted to provide services - questions such as:
Answers to these questions and more could have and should have been provided by Presiding Judge Andra Sparks. But he chose to shut the door on the "hot topic" leaving one to wonder whether he cares about accountability and transparency in government. Or is he just protecting that information and the officials who approved the contract?
This report and analysis is prepared by individuals concerned with equal treatment in the judicial system. 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.
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.
This is the story of how a single mother was abused by for-profit justice and how a “probation loan” turned into an arrest warrant. In the following report, Chade reflects on the hardship imposed on her by Judicial Correction Services (JCS) and the Hoover Municipal Court. Read below the story of how the judicially sponsored profit venture padded their pockets with hundreds of dollars from a single mother of two. The following report unfolded in Valinda Chappell’s interview of Chade. Chade has asked that her identity not be disclosed but has agreed to allow us to tell her story.
Chade is a Birmingham resident who was driving home through Hoover, Alabama when she was pulled over for the violation of following too closely and driving with a suspended license. Chade has two children ages 4 and 8 years old. She is charged with the safety of these children as a single mother. Chade is unemployed. Every month, she faces expenses of living such as food, shelter and medical requirements for her children. She paid the fine for the tickets she was given and continued on with her life. Unbeknownst to Chade, the city of Hoover requires driving classes for offenses such as those she was fined for. She was pulled over again and charged with failure to appear in court for both charges. Her bond was set at $500.00 per charge. Again, she paid. And again, she was released. Like a recurring nightmare, the blue and red lights appeared in her rear-view mirror. She was again charged twice with failure to appear in court. This time, however, her bond doubled to $1,000.00 per charge.
Chade decided that she would stay in the Hoover jail until her court date. When it arrived, she was given a choice; Return to jail for the sentence of 6 months away from her children or pay the sum of $2,030.00 through a 24 month period of probation with Judicial Correction Services, the company contracted to handle probation. “Anything to stay out of jail.” She informed the judge that she did not have a job but was still ordered to make payments of $150.00 per month towards her fines and court costs and $45.00 for “probation services.” Full knowing that she did not have a job, Hoover afforded no protections to Chade as an indigent. Instead, she was strapped with $195.00 of monthly payments to Judicial Correction Services. If she were to make these payments on time every month, she would pay off her fines 14 months. The court would collect their $2,030.00 of fines and Judicial Correction Services would collect another $630.00 paid for “services.” By the completion of her 24 month probation, JCS would have collected $1,080.00 in revenue from the single mother of two.
After having trouble paying these monthly installments, Chade asked the manager of the office if she could pay less or come back next week with the money. Her request was denied. “The way it works in Hoover is, you pay or you stay” meaning that if she could not cover the monthly payments, she would be incarcerated.
As Chade sifted through her paperwork, she explained the fees. One in particular was a “digital photo/set-up fee” of $10.00. Chade’s photo was never taken and there was no set-up process that she was aware of. She repeatedly asked where her money was going but said that no one was there to talk to probationers. “It was like a counter at the McDonald’s. you paid at the window, they gave you a receipt, and you walked out the door.” Despite her efforts, she was only afforded one opportunity to see her probation officer; in court when she was entered into the program. No one at JCS asked Chade if she had a job. No one at JCS asked Chade what her monthly income was. They merely told her to make her payments or a warrant would be issued for her arrest.
At a personal level, Chade’s life has been turned upside down. She spoke in restrained tears of the trouble she has put her family through in their best efforts to keep up with her legal tab. “My parents support me and are proud of me for staying strong but they’re tired.” Chade has had experiences with the state probation office as well. She explained that unlike the profit-seeking company, the state probation officers asked questions about her personal struggles. They knew of her financial status and her responsibilities to her children. In the state program, she was given the opportunity to work her fines off through community service. These accommodations necessary in indigent cases were not offered by Judicial Correction Services.
On May 7, 2012 a warrant was issued for her arrest in Hoover. She was charged with violating her probation. She has a $1,000.00 cash only bond which origins can be traced to moving violations which she paid, in full, the sum of around $300.00. Chade is currently in the application process for a job in a local coal mine in attempt to preserve her freedom and every day, she fights to stay out of reach of the jurisdiction that intends to lock her away in a debtor’s prison. In a last cry for help, Chade filed a complaint with the Justice Department in hopes that her freedom can be protected.
The City of Birmingham is contracted with Judicial Correction Services (JCS) to provide probationary services. Part of those services include conducting educational classes that cost the defendants anywhere from $65 to $650 with additional charges for workbooks. A municipal judge can order a defendant to attend one or more of the following:
Educational classes can certainly be beneficial. They can also be a cash cow for the organization contracted to provide them. Is the City of Birmingham helping to feed the JCS cow? As already reported in an earlier story on this site, defendants are being ordered to classes that have little or no bearing on their misdemeanor charge or traffic violation. One defendant charged with a state firearms violation was ordered to anger management class and drug class – when he asked why he had to go, he was told statistics indicated those who committed that violation also had anger issues and probably drug issues as well.
Look at the City of Birmingham’s Pre-Trial Diversion Agreement and compare it to JCS’ referral form. Along with the requirement that the defendant must register to vote or show proof of voter registration, the agreement specifically names the JCS’ programs making it easy for the judge to simply check them off – Moral Recognition, Job Skills, Financial Responsibility, Anger Management.
Even more telling is another form the City of Birmingham is using that appears to be a generic JCS form that can be used by any court that contracts with them. Simply fill in the name of the court, check off the JCS class, and fill in the name of the JCS coordinator. Get the appropriate signatures and it becomes an official court record. Has the City of Birmingham become JCS’ partner? Sure looks like that could be the case. The Birmingham Municipal Court forms boast that it is the "Biggest and Busiest Court in Alabama." Rather than than big and busy, would we not prefer that the court be the most fair and just, one that does not subject indigent persons to privatized probation that leads to exorbitant fees and costly courses?