The New York Times recently ran a two-part series regarding the plight of people in Childersburg who have seen minor traffic violations balloon into thousands upon thousands of dollars in fines and fees, as well as jail time.
Not long afterward, Shelby County Circuit Judge Hub Herrington took over the operation of the Harpersville Municipal Court via a strongly worded order that accused the court and the probation company for “judicially sanctioned extortion” and a “debtors prison.”
The private company in question is Judicial Correctional Services, based in Georgia. A different office provides the same services for Talladega and Lincoln.
In Talladega, City Manager Brian Muenger said the council had authorized former city manager Thomas Christie to enter into a contract with JCS in June 2004, but there is no accompanying resolution formally approving the contract. Muenger said the city is not allowed to enter into indefinite contracts, so it would be up for renewal in any case. Currently, the city attorney is examining the contract and looking for improvements.
The city turns probationers over to JCS if they have been unable to pay their fines and court costs after two weeks, he said.
The benefit of contracting with companies like JCS is that they prevent cash-strapped cities from having to employ additional personnel and computer equipment to track probationers. JCS provides that service at no charge to the city. They charge the probationer a one-time $10 setup fee and $35 per month until their fines and court costs are paid. “They do it a lot better than we can,” Talladega Municipal Court magistrate Rick Nixon said. “I don’t have enough people to do it here.”
Nixon also pointed out that JCS does not have the authority to have anyone jailed on their own. “They call and tell us if someone isn’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing. We give that person a date to appear. We have a separate docket for cases like that. We give them one last chance. If they don’t show, then we, as a court, will issue a warrant for them. We issue the warrant, not JCS. And the probation fees stop when the warrant is issued. And in situations where there is proof of indigence, like Social Security disability, they collect only the fines and waive the probation fees.”
If someone fails to appear and a capias warrant is issued, this carries a $50 fine, plus $12 in court costs, Nixon said. This is also a one-time fine, and it is set out by the state and does not contribute to JCS’ bottom line.
This was a theme that would recur throughout a lengthy conference call with JCS spokesmen Steve Bradley and Kevin Egan.
“Our job is largely to provide supervision for Talladega and other municipal courts. We coach and counsel offenders and make sure they do everything the judge tells them to do. We make sure they pay all their fines, pay restitution if applicable, take any classes or counseling they are ordered to and stay out of trouble. We’re sometimes called professional tattle-tales. When they bring us information, we verify it. When they’re doing all right, we go back to the court and tell them they’re doing all right. If not, we’ll find out why,” Egan said.
“When someone walks out of court with a sentence, fines, drug tests, anger management classes, whatever, the judge gives a date certain for all that to be accomplished,” Bradley said. “We don’t change the court’s intention. We report successes and failures. We try and remove the roadblocks and logjams, and try to understand the offender’s situation. We’re not an advocate for the offender or for the prosecution. We just want to see these cases closed out.”
Egan said the numbers bear out their approach. “With unsupervised probation, about 30 percent of people do what the court expects of them. With supervision, that average is 75 percent. Depending on the court, we can have 70 to 80 percent compliance. There’s no easy answer, no magic bullet,” he said. “But this is all we do. We have time. The court clerk, for instance, has lots of other responsibilities, and does not have the time.”
Regardless of what an offender has to pay in fines, court costs, class fees, drug tests and other expenses, JCS is paid only the $10 set up fee and (in most cases) $35 per month. The rest of the money goes to the city, the state, or other service provided, such as rehabilitation services and classes.
“And we can, and frequently do, give waivers,” he said. “If they get paid up in a couple of weeks, or if the court finds them indigent or they are indigent for the purpose of our supervision fees, or even if they have cases in other jurisdictions where we’re already managing them, we don’t collect anything.” Probation fees are waived in 18 or 19 percent of cases, depending on the jurisdiction. The problem with the court or JCS finding someone indigent is that Alabama law does not define indigency. “It’s completely up to the judge,” Bradley said.
Local offices can choose to waive fees without consulting management.
“That $35 or $40 per month is all we collect,” he said. “And that’s only until they are compliant or largely compliant. We don’t assess any other fees.”
“We do not share in any percentage of the fines,” Bradley clarified. “In the Harpersville case, they are charged a $31 per day housing fee while they are in jail. We don’t get any of that, and we don’t get a probation fee while they’re incarcerated.”
If an offender is not compliant for two consecutive months or three months altogether, the judge will likely issue a warrant, and the supervision fees will stop. If the judge puts the offender back on probation, the fees begin again.
The company does not charge fees for people on medical holds, such as drug rehabilitation or medical conditions or pregnant women on bed rest. “If they are unable to report to us, we don’t charge them anything,” Bradley said.
If the probationer pays off all fines and other expenses but fails pay their probation fee, JCS will write off the loss, he said. “We have never in history gone after anyone civilly for not paying their probation fee.”
A particular problem Egan and Bradley cited was with probationers who, by law, have their driver’s licenses suspended. “A lot of them,” Egan said, “only find out if they get stopped, which carries a fine of $200 to $500 and adds six months to the suspension. That’s really where the revolving door starts. Once you pay off all of those fines and tickets, you can get a certificate to get your license back, but it will cost you $100 to $275 to get it back.”
The law keeps piling on the penalties, not the company, they said.
And, of course, not having a driver’s license makes it more difficult to find work if the offender is unemployed or underemployed, and makes it harder to keep a job if he has one.
This is where the other part of JCS’ mission comes into play.
“If they can’t pay,” Egan said, “the first thing is to find out why not. We provide suggestions to help remove those roadblocks.” Most commonly the reasons will be unemployment of underemployment and budgeting issues.
“We do a job skills inventory first,” he said. “If he’s working construction but has some welding experience, we can help find him a better paying job. If they’ve got retail experience, we send them to the career center to go online to look for work. We’re not a social services organization, but we do work with them. If they have mental health issues, for instance, we’ll work with the local mental health authorities. And we follow up. Most of the people we work with are good people who just don’t have enough structure in their lives. They didn’t get or renew their car tag or their insurance, and they get caught in the spiral.”
Bradley added that JCS also does budget assessments. “We look for efficiencies and life structure issues. If someone is single and lives in a four bedroom house, we would recommend that they move someplace smaller to save on rent. We’re not Life University or anything, but we can help people rethink their priorities. And no, bread and milk money is not considered here,” Egan said.
For people without driver’s licenses, the company can help arrange carpools with other probationers or family, neighbors or people working at the same location. “It sounds Mickey Mouse,” he said. “But it works.”
Most offenders who successfully complete their probation do so in about three or three and a half months, Bradley said.
As far as the issue of right to representation that was mentioned in both the Shelby County order and the Times piece, Bradley said he did not see this as an issue.
“The judge advises everyone at once in most cases that they have a right to counsel, and there is a box on the probation form they have to sign that asks whether or not they were represented. But again, that doesn’t have anything to do with us.”
He added, “I’m not defending the court in Harpersville, necessarily, but I’m not sure the judge’s hypothetical in this case is accurate.”
Contact Chris Norwood at firstname.lastname@example.org.