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City Dumps Private Probation Firm Amid Claims It Extorts Poor

A private company that allegedly threatened to jail poor people in Clanton, Alabama for failing to pay municipal fines is no longer working for the city, part of a settlement in one of more than a dozen legal battles roiling a once-booming for-profit probation industry.

In March, the Southern Poverty Law Center brought the federal suit against the city of Clanton and Judicial Correction Services, the largest private probation company in Alabama. It claimed the company had violated federal racketeering laws by threatening to jail impoverished people if they did not pay fees and fines to the company and Clanton's municipal court.

On Tuesday, as part of its settlement with SPLC, Clanton agreed to end its contract with the private company and take over the collection of fines.

“Clanton did the right thing by cutting ties with its private probation company, Judicial Correction Services,” said Sam Brooke, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The political leaders of our towns and cities need to recognize the damage these companies inflict on their communities and to stop using them.”

The Clanton lawsuit followed two earlier lawsuits in Montgomery, Alabama, one by the SPLC and another by Equal Justice Under Law, that ended with a settlement agreement and Montgomery severing ties with JCS. Since the filing of these lawsuits, other Alabama towns have cut ties with private probation companies.

Probation companies contract with courts to supervise people convicted of low-level fines and ensure they pay court debt. On top of their court fines, probationers must pay a "supervision fee" to the company -- $40 per month in Clanton.

Though attractive to cash-strapped municipalities, many say this "offender-funded" model traps poor defendants in a cycle of debt, and can land them in jail if they do not pay. Lawsuits have been launched against private probation companies across the southeast claiming the industry amounts to a modern day “debtors prison.”

The city of Clanton and JCS did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

SPLC is going forward with its claims against JCS of racketeering, extortion and abuse of process. Brooke said the group also sent letters to nearly 100 Alabama municipalities urging them to end their contracts with JCS. The letters allege that the contracts are illegal and that the collection tactics amount to extortion.

“Private probation companies appear to offer a solution for cash-strapped cities hoping to collect fines,” Brooke said. “But that ‘solution’ not only violates Alabama law, it extorts and terrorizes our most vulnerable communities while fattening the bottom line of these companies.”