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How to Fight Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons? Sue the Courts.

Alec Karakatsanis’s quest to stop courts from punishing poor people who can’t pay their fees.

A young civil-rights attorney in Washington, D.C., is suing courts across the country for jailing defendants unable to afford their bail, court fines, and probation fees. As a result, cities in Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana have recently done away with bail for misdemeanors and traffic violations.

The lawyer, 31-year-old Alec Karakatsanis, has now filed a federal lawsuit against Rutherford County, Tenn. and the private company it contracts with to collect court debts. According to the lawsuit, that company, Providence Community Corrections, ran “an extortion scheme” that “conspired to extract as much money as possible” from people who were threatened with jail time if they couldn’t pay court fees and fines.

PCC is “user funded,” which means the company does not charge the county for its services but depends solely on fees paid for by people on probation. Some of those fees include “supervision fees,” costs for drug tests and classes, and even a $25 fee for those applying for fee reductions. Before Rutherford County outsourced its probation services to PCC in 1996, the county was only collecting a fraction of fees, PCC State Director Sean Hollis told the Daily News Journal in 2014.

PCC collected over $17 million from probationers in Rutherford County between 2009 and 2014, according to the Daily News Journal. Rutherford County Judge Ben Hall McFarlin told the paper at that time: “The county didn't pay for anyone to get that money," adding that he had never sentenced anyone to jail if their only violation was a failure to pay. "I don't see where the taxpayers would disagree with that.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven plaintiffs and alleges that indigent defendants in Rutherford County have lost their jobs, houses, cars, and even sold their own blood plasma to make payments and avoid jail time.

“Everything about this scheme is in flagrant violation of U.S. constitutional law, federal law, and even specific Tennessee law,” Karakatsanis told The Marshall Project. In Tennessee, it’s illegal to imprison a person over court debt.

The suit was brought under a federal anti-corruption law accusing PCC and Rutherford County of operating a “racketeering enterprise” that misuses “the probation supervision process for profit.”

The suit was brought under a federal anti-corruption law accusing PCC and Rutherford County of operating a “racketeering enterprise” that misuses “the probation supervision process for profit.” A spokesman for PCC, Jeff Hahn, wrote in a statement that PCC's "mission is to encourage people to complete their probation successfully per the terms set by the courts." He added that "in each of the states we serve, we steadfastly comply with the laws governing the probation system."

It’s just the latest salvo from Karakatsanis, who helped start Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit civil-rights organization. Karakatsanis and co-founder Phil Telfeyan, 32, started their organization in 2014 with a grant from their alma mater, Harvard Law School, in order to challenge inequalities in the criminal justice system. The organization often works in partnership with local attorneys and nonprofits.

In November 2014, the city of Montgomery, Ala., agreed to terminate its contract with a private probation company as part of a settlement with Equal Justice Under Law. The lawsuit alleged that indigent people in Montgomery were being jailed over their inability to pay their court debts. Similar lawsuits were filed in 2015 against municipal courts in Ferguson, Mo., Jennings, Mo. and New Orleans, La., although those cities do not rely on private probation companies to collect debts.

Equal Justice Under Law has also sued six jurisdictions over their bail systems, and all six no longer require defendants to pay bail as a condition of their release. The organization filed a seventh lawsuit, in Calhoun, Ga., in early September.

In Rutherford County, 13 percent of people live below the federal poverty line, and according to the lawsuit, it’s those people who are most likely to get caught in a cycle of debt with PCC. In 2014, Cindy Rodriguez, one of the plaintiffs in the Rutherford County lawsuit and a mother of two, was arrested for shoplifting from a grocery store. As the lawsuit details, Rodriguez has “no bank account, no real property, and no significant assets. She is so poor that she has difficulty maintaining active utilities in her home.”

Because she had no criminal record, the district attorney agreed to dismiss her case as long as she complied with her probation and paid the court $578. Rodriguez couldn’t pay the entire fee at once and was placed on probation with PCC for 11 months and 29 days. Almost a year later, Rodriguez had paid close to the full amount she originally owed PCC. But her case was far from over.

As of this June, the probation company only applied $66 to her court costs, keeping the rest as payment for its services. In July, PCC demanded she pay her remaining balance of $533.35 in full, and when she couldn’t pay, the company sought a warrant for her arrest. Rodriguez turned herself in and was eventually released on her own recognizance. PCC also filed a motion to extend her probation by another 11 months, 29 days (the standard extension time, according to the lawsuit) due to her failure to pay, during which time she would be charged additional fees.

Attorneys Matthew White and Sarah Murray from the law firm Baker Donelson, which joined Equal Justice Under Law in the suit, are now representing Rodriguez pro bono. A judge recently provided Rodriguez with a payment plan that does not involve supervision from PCC, an option that was always available, although Rodriguez claimed she was never informed of this alternative. (The lawsuit alleges that PCC has a policy of not to alerting probationers of their options to apply for leniency due to indigence.) Officials with Rutherford County did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Karakatsanis said PCC is not alone in its methodologies. “We’re working on more cases in other communities around the country.”

This story has been updated to include PCC's response to the lawsuit, which wasn't immediately available.