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Alabama judge says enough with the debtors prison

In a blistering order yesterday, a county judge in Alabama called enough on one city's use of a private probation company that passes on fees for its work to people convicted of crimes and then throws them into jail when they can't pay. We covered this on the show a couple of weeks ago as the unlikely return of debtors prisons in this country, drawing on a long feature in the New York Times. Shelby County (Alabama) Judge Hub Harrington sees the matter that same way. Ruling in a suit against the town of Harpersville, he writes (pdf):

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 might 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.

Judge Harrington writes that the list of ways in which constitutional safeguards have been violated is too long to chronicle, but he spells out several. Number eight caught my eye: "Defendants interminably held in the county work release program until all fines and fees are paid in full." In addition to holding folks in debtors prison, he's saying, they're also holding them in indefinite work release -- for profit. While the case continues, Judge Harrington says he's taking over the cases of the folks thrown into jail for not paying.

The company, Judicial Correction Services, Inc., promises to help courts cut recidivism and boost their fine collection. The company has offices in Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi.

(Image: From a Judicial Correction Services, Inc., video.)