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Fines, fees add up when probation services go private

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Tiffany Wilson lives in a small duplex in Gurley, Alabama, population 798, two hours north of Birmingham. Wilson lives with her husband Brad, a press operator at a newspaper, and their two toddlers.

This time last year, the family was homeless. Part of Wilson’s money problems are in this thick binder she pulls out, full of receipts from her probation company.

In 2011, police in nearby Scottsboro pulled Wilson over. She got one ticket for speeding and one for no proof of insurance. In a town next door, same thing — two more tickets. Her total in fines: $1,016. Wilson didn’t have that kind of money. So the cities sent her to a private probation company called Judicial Correction Services. Wilson met with her probation officer every Friday.

“She said you have to figure out a way to come in with a payment or anything, or you’re going to go back to court, and if you don’t do it the judge will put you in jail,” Wilson says. 

Three years, one income tax refund and one week in jail later, she paid it off. But Wilson says it wasn’t the fines that got her, so much as the probation fees JCS charged — anywhere from $35 to $45 a month.

The Wilson family

“Like here, fees in arrears $450, with only owing, $103 for fine,” she says. “But I owed $450 in fees. That’s wrong.”

Sara Zampierin is an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which sued the city of Clanton for using JCS. The lawsuit was settled when Clanton dropped its contract. 

“What we heard in Clanton was that often, JCS employees would use the threat of jail and try and set more frequent appointments to try and give people every opportunity to bring as much money as they could,” Zampierin says. “They wanted to extort as much money out of people as possible.”

Asked for comment, the company issued this statement: “JCS operates at the discretion of the court system with which we are contracted. We are not a decision maker as it relates to sentencing and establishing fines.”

Recently several other municipalities have stopped using JCS, fearing similar lawsuits. One of them was Scottsboro.

Ten years ago, JCS officials met with the Scottsboro City Council and offered to take probation off the city’s hands. 

“Their pitch to us was that they were able to have the manpower that they could collect fines for us,” says Rick Wheeler, the city’s finance director. “And they would put people on a payment plan.”

At the time, Scottsboro had only two court employees. JCS has 40 offices in Alabama alone. Its services wouldn’t cost a thing. So how could the city refuse?

“You couldn’t,” Wheeler says. “It was a good sales pitch. And they’ve done a very good job for us.”

City revenue went up under JCS. In 2005, Scottsboro collected $530,000 in fines; in 2014, it collected $879,000. JCS would send Scottsboro a check every month.

But JCS paid itself first. If a person on probation paid, say, $50, the company took its monthly fee off the top, and only $5 went to the court. And Zampierin says the poorest people paid the most to JCS; their debt is strung out over a longer period of time, so they rack up more monthly fees.

Wilson and her husband are still digging themselves out of another JCS debt — her husband owes more than $1,700 in traffic fines and monthly fees.

“We’re getting close, but it seems pretty impossible,” she says. “Because it’s hard to pay what they expect you to pay every time, and with them keep adding to it, it’s like trying to fight a losing battle.”

Wilson takes the kids out to a trampoline she and her husband found on Craigslist — a birthday present for their 3-year-old. She says last year, they couldn’t afford to get him a gift. This year is shaping up to be a little bit better.

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