February 5, 2014

V. “I Hope You Have My Money”: Abusive Collection Tactics

They [JCS] were slow at first getting those arrest warrants out so I said, “Look, the only thing these people understand is putting their feet to the fire.” And they did it and collections went up.
— Municipal Court clerk, Clarksville, Mississippi, June 2013.[113]

Some of the probationers interviewed by Human Rights Watch described their company probation officers as professional, compassionate and helpful in the face of difficulty. But others alleged that their company probation officers behaved like abusive debt collectors. They described a consistent pattern of probation officers displaying a relentless, singular focus on payment and routinely threatening to have probationers jailed when their payments of fines and company fees fell into arrears.[114] In some cases, company probation officers have courts jail offenders in order to coerce their families into paying some of what they owe in exchange for their freedom.

In a refrain echoed by many other interviewees, one JCS probationer in Childersburg, Alabama complained to Human Rights Watch that when he reports to his probation officer, “The first thing they say is, “I hope you have all my money today.” He continued:

They acting like you owe them instead of you owing the city. They ‘aint going to ask you, “Is you working, is you doing any good,” or nothing—just, “Give me that money.” Lots of people ‘round here paying them and they ‘aint got no jobs. I know people selling drugs and paying them every month. They like, “Hey, I’m doing what they told me, ‘aint I?”[115]
Another man on JCS probation in the same town added, “You can’t talk to them like you grown. You have to talk to them like you a kid—‘Yes, ma’am, no ma’am.’ If you don’t, they say, ‘I’m telling you: keep on running your mouth.’”[116]

Probation company executives interviewed by Human Rights Watch condemned this kind of behavior while acknowledging that it was a problem in at least some cases. Mark Contestabile of Sentinel said, “There’s always a chance for rudeness. We constantly talk about respectfulness and about how it’s not your money, so don’t say ‘You owe me.’”[117] But mere rudeness is not the problem. These complaints exist alongside allegations that some company probation officers misuse the threat of jail to squeeze offenders who fall behind on payments, while ignoring the protestations of offenders who claim they are genuinely unable to pay.

A lawsuit alleging abusive practices by JCS and the Municipal Court in Harpersville, Alabama is still pending and has already led that court to being shut down altogether.[118] The judge in that case has described the Harpersville/JCS operation as a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket” and a “debtors’ prison.”[119] Another case against JCS and the nearby town of Childersburg involves similar allegations—that probationers are wrongfully kept on probation for years at a stretch and routinely imprisoned over their inability to pay exorbitant fines and company fees.[120] JCS has called the Childersburg allegations “baseless,” “ridiculous” and “patently false.”[121]

In Augusta, Georgia Sentinel probationers have filed suit alleging a broad range of abusive practices linked to the collection of probation fees.[122] The suits allege, along with other violations, that Sentinel and the Richmond county State Court routinely imprisoned offenders who were destitute and unable to pay probation and monitoring fees. In September 2013, Superior Court Daniel Craig granted partial summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs but Sentinel successfully sought temporary relief from the state Supreme Court pending final resolution of the case.[123]

Sentinel has strongly rejected all of the allegations against it in the Augusta litigation, while agreeing that local courts sentenced some probationers in violation of their basic rights.[124] Company executive Mark Contestabile insisted to Human Rights Watch that, “we do not have a service problem there,” adding, “Not one of those people ever called corporate [Sentinel’s offices] before they went to a lawyer.” He and officials from several other probation companies cast the litigation as a self-interested adventure by Augusta attorney Jack Long, who has brought the cases forward. [125]

Human Rights Watch interviewed some of the plaintiffs and potential plaintiffs in the Georgia and Alabama litigation, and some of their arduous experiences as probationers are described in the pages below. But the more important point is that while some of the allegations at issue in those cases are at the extreme end of the spectrum, they are not mere aberrations.[126] Rather, they fit into broader patterns of alleged abuse that often go completely unpublicized, as discussed in our findings, below.

Threats of Incarceration

Many of the probationers interviewed by Human Rights Watch alleged that their company probation officers routinely threatened to have them jailed for failing to make payments or for falling into arrears—while refusing to take seriously their assertions that they could not afford to keep up with scheduled payments. Those allegations are echoed by the lawsuits against JCS and Sentinel in Alabama and Georgia. The complainants in a civil suit against JCS and the town of Harpersville, Alabama allege that “On many occasions, JCS stated that Plaintiffs must pay certain amounts, such as $200 or $500, or face immediate jail.”[127]

Probation company officials argued to Human Rights Watch that their employees have no ability to jail anyone and that this power lies exclusively with the courts. But as a later section of this report shows, some courts are so lax in their oversight of the probation companies they hire and so eager to delegate responsibility to them that company employees end up with a great deal of coercive power.[128] And even where company probation officers’ threats of incarceration are partly empty, they can still be coercive and abusive. Many probationers do not realize the theoretical limits of their probation company’s authority and take the threats at face value.[129]

In July 2013, Human Rights Watch interviewed a young woman who was then checked in to a drug rehabilitation facility in Augusta, Georgia. In 2012 a Richmond county State Court judge had modified her preexisting order of probation with Sentinel Offender Services to require her to wear and pay for an electronic monitoring bracelet. Already struggling to make ends meet and care for a young daughter while careening between unemployment and low-wage jobs at Waffle House and McDonalds, she now owed Sentinel roughly $300 per month in fees. She quickly fell behind and found her Sentinel probation officers unwilling to take seriously her insistence that she was unable to pay:

Every time I went down there they was nasty. They’d threaten me with jail and I said “Please, don’t throw me in jail. I don’t want to lose my kid.” I’d be sitting there crying in front of these people and they’d just say, “Ma’am, that’s not our problem. You are the one who got into trouble, you got to figure this out yourself.” … I always felt like I was never going to get out from under these people.[130]

Some court officials may openly or tacitly sanction such aggressive tactics. But in other cases there is evidence that probation company employees threaten to jail offenders without the knowledge or approval of the court. Judge James Straight, a Justice Court judge in Bolivar county, Mississippi, told Human Rights Watch about a woman who had called his court in tears, claiming that her JCS probation officer was threatening to have her jailed over roughly $500 in arrears. Working a low-paying job at a local gas station, she had struggled to keep up with her payments. Judge Straight recalled:

They were telling her, “If you don’t get us $545 or whatever it was, we will get [the judge] to put you in jail.” She had called [her probation officer] and said she could come up with about $200. [The probation officer] said, “No, you have to pay it all or I’m getting the judge to put you in jail.” This lady was crying on the phone to me.[131]

Judge Straight asked his clerk to look into the woman’s case and what they found was surprising. She had only been fined $377 to begin with, for driving without a valid license. What’s more, court records show that she already paid off that entire amount—but still owed JCS about $500 in fees.[132] In Judge Straight’s view, the court would never issue an arrest warrant on that basis, but probationers have no way of knowing that. He added, “They are misusing the court system to collect their fee. They are using us as judges. I think they are after a fee and that’s it.”[133]

Company probation officers take great pains to ensure that no offender can pay off their debt to the court before paying all of their probation fees. They do this by splitting each payment made by their probationers between themselves and the court in a way that guarantees the two debts will be paid down simultaneously.[134] This reflects how heavily reliant they are on the coercive powers of the court to collect their revenues. Even though courts make payment of company fees a condition of probation, many courts would balk at ordering the arrest of a person whose only debt is to a private company. One company probation officer in Georgia explained the dilemma this way:

This is going to sound bad, but when it gets down to not that much money I make sure there are still some fines left along with the fees. I can’t get a warrant out on someone who only owes [company] fees.[135]

Jailing Offenders to Induce Payment

Vast numbers of arrest warrants are issued every year for offenders on private probation. In Georgia alone, 124,788 arrest warrants were issued for offenders on private probation in 2012.[136] In other states the numbers reside solely with individual probation companies, who do not make them public. In theory, these warrants are issued so offenders can be brought before the court for a probation revocation hearing. But some company probation officers secure the arrest of probationers who are behind on their payments as a way of coercing them or their families into coming up with some of what they owe.

It works like this: an offender is arrested and put behind bars, nominally in order to await a probation revocation hearing. The probation revocation hearing never takes place. Instead, the company probation officer negotiates with the jailed probationer for partial payment of what they owe. If they can come up with an agreed-upon sum, often just a few hundred dollars, the probation officer asks the judge to order their release and they remain on probation. Often, the offender never appears in court at all.[137]

In some cases, company employees approach jailed probationers’ families and negotiate with them for payment. This disturbing practice essentially sees some company probation officers use the courts to jail offenders in order to use them as hostages in financial negotiations with spouses, parents and other relatives who are desperate to get them released. A probation officer employed by one Georgia company described the process this way:

I always try and negotiate with the families. Once they know you are serious they come up with some money. That’s how you have to be. They have to see that this person is not getting out unless they pay something. I’m just looking for some good faith money, really. I got one guy I let out of jail today and I got three or four more sitting there right now.… It’s hard. You get cussed at, you get called every name in the book, you get people crying.[138]
She added that she “tries to avoid” bringing these cases in front of a judge, casting court as a headache best avoided by everyone.[139] But this approach essentially left her with unfettered discretion and no judicial oversight of her efforts to use incarceration to extract payments from offenders.

There is no evidence that most company probation officers engage in such practices and many probation companies categorically reject them. Mark Contestabile of Sentinel described direct approaches to probationers’ family members for money as “poor case management” and said he doubted that any reputable probation company condoned such practices on the part of their employees. But the line between permissible and impermissible practice can be a fine one. Sentinel’s branch manager in Brunswick, Georgia told Human Rights Watch that if an offender faces incarceration for failing to pay, “We do not go calling his momma and saying, ‘Hey, bring us $500 of this $1,000 he owes.’ Now, if she comes in here on her own with that money, we might take it. We don’t go telling his momma, ‘You can’t pay it,’ or, ‘It won’t help his case.’”[140]

Hidden Costs to the Public

The misuse of incarceration as a collections tactic by some company probation officers is not only abusive, but it also undercuts companies’ claim to provide services at no cost to the public. In Georgia, it costs an average of $50 per day to keep an individual behind bars, a cost borne by local taxpayers.[141] In purely financial terms, a municipality loses money if it keeps an offender behind bars for a week in order to collect $250 in fines. A 2012 Brennan Center study showed that one North Carolina county spent more to pursue and jail 246 offenders for debt-related reasons than it ultimately collected from them.[142] But such calculations look very different from the perspective of a probation company that does not have to account for these costs.

At least one local jurisdiction in Georgia has made an apparent and very disturbing attempt to grapple with this issue by requiring its probation company to essentially rent jail space as a condition of its contract. The town of Griffin requires its private probation provider to pay a minimum of $2,500 per month in exchange for the right to “utilize seventy-two (72) existing bed spaces per month for the incarceration of probation inmates.”[143] A subsequent communication to probation firms interested in bidding on the contract confirmed that the fee was “for jail space used to house probationers.”[144]

In Human Rights Watch’s view, the imposition of such fees is troubling because they stand as implicit confirmation of public authorities’ acceptance of the notion that private probation companies have the de facto power to jail probationers. One probation company executive derisively referred to this requirement as a “kickback fee” that served no legitimate public purpose and stated that his company refused to bid on Griffin’s contract for precisely this reason.[145]

[113] Human Rights Watch interview with Municipal Court clerk [identity withheld], Mississippi, June 2013.

[114] See Southern Center for Human Rights, “Profiting from the Poor: A Report on Predatory Probation Companies in Georgia,” July 2008, http://www.schr.org/files/profit_from_poor.pdf (accessed December 4, 2013), p.2. “[Companies] are not designed to supervise people or connect them to services and jobs. Rather, they charge exorbitant monthly fees and a variety of bullying tactics to squeeze money out of the men and women under their supervision.”

[115] Human Rights Watch interview with JCS probationer [identity withheld], Childersburg, Alabama, October 2013.

[116] Human Rights Watch interview with JCS probationer [identity withheld], Childersburg, Alabama, October 2013.

[117] Human Rights Watch interview with probation company officials, Tucker, Georgia, October 10, 2013.

[118] Hannah Rappleye and Lisa Riordan-Seville, “‘Cash register justice’: Private probation services face legal counterattack,” NBC News, October 24, 2012, http://investigations.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/10/24/14653300-cash-register-justice-private-probation-services-face-legal-counterattack (accessed December 4, 2012).

[119] See below, Harpersivlle: A Cautionary Tale.

[120] JCS faces additional litigation in Alabama alleging narrower violations—that the company has unlawfully collected probation fees in reliance on orders of probation not signed by a judge as required under Alabama law. See Foster et al. v. Judicial Correction Services, Inc. et al., Alabama Middle District Court, No. 2:2012-cv-00724, Motion for Summary Judgment, 2012, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[121] Judicial Correction Services, “Statement in Response to a Baseless Lawsuit in Childersburg, Alabama,” August 29, 2012, http://fairprobationservices.com/content/statement-in-response-to-a-baseless-lawsuit-in-childersburg-alabama/ (accessed December 4, 2012).

[122] Complaints, on file with Human Rights Watch; Sandy Hodson, “Private probation company Sentinel hit with another civil lawsuit,” The Augusta Chronicle, March 22, 2013, http://chronicle.augusta.com/news/crime-courts/2013-03-22/private-probation-company-sentinel-hit-another-civil-lawsuit (accessed December 4, 2012). See also Hannah Rappleye and Lisa Riordan-Seville, “‘Cash register justice’: Private probation services face legal counterattack,” NBC News, October 24, 2012, http://investigations.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/10/24/14653300-cash-register-justice-private-probation-services-face-legal-counterattack (accessed December 4, 2012).

[123]Cash et al. v Sentinel Offender Services, Superior Court of Richmond county, Order, September 16, 2013; Sandy Hodson, “Georgia High Court Grants Sentinel Request,” Augusta Chronicle, October 24, 2013, http://chronicle.augusta.com/news/crime-courts/2013-10-24/georgia-high-court-grants-sentinel-request (accessed December 13, 2013). See also Sandy Hodson, “Judges say probation restraining order crippling their court,” The Augusta Chronicle, April 30, 2013, http://chronicle.augusta.com/news/crime-courts/2013-04-30/judges-say-probation-restraining-order-crippling-their-court (accessed December 4, 2012). In 2012, Sentinel lost its contract with the Superior Court of Richmond and Columbia county and was ultimately replaced by another firm, CSRA probation. Chief Judge Carlisle Overstreet said CSRA was a better fit partly because the court was “not in the money-making business.” Sandy Hodson and Barry Paschal, “New probation firm to replace Sentinel in local courts,” The Augusta Chronicle, January 15, 2013, http://chronicle.augusta.com/news/crime-courts/2013-01-14/new-probation-firm-replace-sentinel-local-courts (accessed December 4, 2013). Sentinel’s contract with the Richmond county State Court was renewed in September 2013 despite the allegations swirling around the company’s practices there. Mike Miller, “Sentinel To Offer Probation Services For Another Year,” WJBF, September 3, 2013, http://www.wjbf.com/story/23331715/sentinel-to-offer-probation-services-for-another-year (accessed December 2013.

[124]Cash et al. v. Sentinel Offender Services.

[125] Human Rights Watch interview with probation company officials, Tucker, Georgia, October 10, 2013. For his part, Long argues that the cases expose egregious malfeasance by both the court and Sentinel and adds that, “This is all a problem because it breeds contempt for the judicial system.… They [probationers] come away thinking the whole court system is a fucking joke. Are they ever going to have any respect for the judiciary after this? No, they aren’t.” Human Rights Watch interview with Jack Long, Augusta, Georgia, July 26, 2013.

[126] See Misty Dawn Bell v. Providence Community Corrections, Inc, US District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, No. 3:2011-cv-00203, 2011. In that case the plaintiff, a PCC probationer, alleged that the company illegally “harasses and intimidates” probationers in order to collect fees that are sometimes in excess of what they are entitled to. After the district court denied PCC’s motion to dismiss a federal civil rights claim (while dismissing other claims), the case was settled. The court docket does not reflect the terms of the settlement.

[127]Gina Kay Ray and others v. Judicial Correction Services, Correctional Healthcare Companies, and the City of Childersburg, US District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, No. 2:2012-cv-2819-RDP, Second Amended and Restated Complaint, August 28, 2012, on file with Human Rights Watch. On September 26, 2013 the district court denied a motion to dismiss (except that the court held that the release of incarcerated persons could only be sought by habeas corpus).

[128] See below, Inappropriate Delegation of Court Responsibilities.

[129] Human Rights Watch interviews with probationers, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama, June-October 2013.

[130] Human Rights Watch interview with Sentinel probationer [identity withheld], Augusta, Georgia, July 2013.

[131] Human Rights Watch interview with Justice Court Judge James Straight, Cleveland, Mississippi, June 20, 2013.

[132] Record of case from clerk, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[133] Human Rights Watch interview with Justice Court Judge James Straight, Cleveland, Mississippi, June 20, 2013. Crystal Beach, the head of JCS’ Bolivar county office, told Human Rights Watch that she was not familiar with the case even though she was the probation officer who allegedly threatened the woman. Human Rights Watch interview with Crystal Beach, Probation Manager, Judicial Correction Services, Cleveland, Mississippi, June 20, 2013.

[134] Some probation company contracts with courts and local governments specify exactly how partial payments will be split between company fees and court revenues. In other cases it appears that this is determined informally or left to the discretion of the probation company. Contracts on file with Human Rights Watch.

[135] Human Rights Watch interview with company probation officer [identity withheld], Georgia, June 2013.

[136] Data from Open Records Request to Georgia’s County and Municipal Probation Advisory Council (CMPAC), on file with Human Rights Watch.

[137] Human Rights Watch interviews with company probation officer and former company probation officer [identities withheld], Georgia, June 2013.

[138] Human Rights Watch interview with company probation officer [identity withheld], Georgia, June 2013.

[139] Ibid.

[140] Human Rights Watch interview with Jimmy Pitts, Brunswick, Georgia, July 24, 2013.

[141] Georgia Department of Corrections, “FY2011 Allocation of Cost to Inmates, Probationers, Etc.” 2011, http://www.dcor.state.ga.us/pdf/CorrectionsCosts.pdf (accessed January 23, 2014).

[142] Rebekah Diller, Alicia Bannon, and Mitali Nagrecha, “Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry,” Brennan Center’s for Justice, New York University School of Law, October 4, 2010, http://www.brennancenter.org/publication/criminal-justice-debt-barrier-reentry (accessed December 4, 2012), p.2.

[143] RFP for Probation Services, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[144] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with probation company executive [identity withheld], October 2013.

[145] Ibid.