Debtors' prisons may be a medieval legacy, but a series of recent lawsuits have drawn attention to the fact that the practice of incarcerating people unable to pay fines and fees remains widespread in present-day America.
Last month, when residents of the St. Louis, Missouri suburbs of Ferguson and Jennings sued the municipalities over their use of traffic tickets and court fines to raise revenue at the cost of poor residents, officials and activists noted that the scheme was not limited to those towns, nor to public entities.
The issue resurfaced again today after three Alabama residents filed a lawsuit accusing a private, for-profit company contracted by a local city to collect traffic fines and other citations, of violating federal racketeering laws by extorting payments from residents and threatening them with jail over their inability to pay.
The lawsuit, filed against Judicial Correction Services (JCS), a major private probation service, and its local manager, also accuses the city of Clanton of allowing the racket to exist by entering into a illegal contract with JCS, which works with more than 100 municipalities in Alabama and several more across the country.
JCS and the city of Clanton could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.
The company — which essentially operates as a debt-collecting agency on behalf of the city — required people unable to pay their full fines upfront to pay additional fees of $40 — paid to the company directly — for each month they were in arrears. When people couldn't pay, JCS threatened to throw them in jail — and on a few occasions did so.
What the company didn't tell their debtors, is that they had a right to have those fees waived or their payments lowered. JCS had a form to request this adjustment, but never told clients about it. The city tacitly allowed the scheme to operate, the lawsuit alleges, and actually enabled it by signing a contract with JCS, without first holding a public bid, and by allowing the company to charge probation fees — both violations of Alabama law.
"The problem with that is not only the exploitative nature of that threat, it's also that it's just plainly untrue," Sam Brooke, a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which brought the suit on behalf of the three Clanton residents, told VICE News.
"As a legal matter, people cannot be required to pay more than they are able to pay and they certainly cannot be incarcerated for their inability to pay."
But most people trapped into JCS's scheme don't know that, he said.
Roxanne Reynolds, a technician on an auto parts assembly line, is one of the plaintiffs in the suit that owed payments to JCS over traffic fines. She had already spent four days in jail after missing a hearing and the threat of more fines left her terrified.
JCS's Clanton manager, Steven Raymond, would show up to appointments with clients like Reynolds carrying handcuffs, and the company's logo was designed to resemble the badge of a law enforcement agency, even though JCS is not one.
"[Reynolds] would go and tell them, 'I'm not working right now, I don't have any more money to give you, here's my doctor's note'," Brooke said. "The response from Mr. Raymond was, 'that's not my problem.'"
Brook said that Reynolds then went without food, had her utilities cut, and skipped medication for her multiple sclerosis, until she could pay off her fines and the additional fees tacked onto them.
These intimidation tactics amount to a violation of the federal Racketeer Influences and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the lawsuit alleges.
Brooke said that JCS's actions are not anomalous, and the practice of similar tactics by probation companies extends well beyond Clanton.
"This is not isolated at all," he said. "Far too often, municipal courts, whether they be in Ferguson or Montgomery, Alabama, where we sued, are seen as an unofficial wild wild West where anything can go, and in that context JCS and companies like it are able to thrive."
While the cases are widespread, the growing attention to the exploitation of poverty by local governments — and those hired by them — marks an important shift in consciousness, Brooke added.
"We are coming upon — and maybe we're already there, I hope — a moment when everyone in the US is rethinking this and saying, 'wait a second, business as usual can't keep operating the way it has been,'" he said. "But we're not there yet."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi