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Editor's note, Aug. 13:Welcome, Redditors! Thanks for your interest in our reporting on the private probation industry. While you're here, explore more of America Tonight's reporting on justice issues:
CHILDERSBURG, Ala. – Elvis Mann dropped a freshly sliced green tomato into a skillet, bringing it to life. One by one, he flipped the slabs with a fork, his worn fingers immune to the popping grease.
“It’s a secret recipe,” he said with a thick drawl and flashing a Cheshire Cat grin.
The 55-year-old Mann wasn’t always so carefree. Trouble began in 2006 when the police stopped him for a broken taillight and ticketed him for not having a valid driver’s license. When Mann couldn’t afford to pay the fine, he was told he was on probation.
“They put me on probation for 300 and some dollars,” he said.
Mann was told to report to the small non-descript Childersburg offices of Judicial Corrections Services (JCS), a for-profit company that has probation contracts with more than 100 courts across Alabama. In the areas where it operates, JCS manages the probation of offenders who are unable to pay a ticket in full, collecting the court fine plus a monthly supervision fee.
Unemployed and surviving off disability payments, Mann couldn’t afford the mounting costs. When he didn’t pay up, JCS asked the court to issue a warrant for his arrest.
“I don't think it's right for them to do people like that. You know, if you ain't got the money, you just don't have the money,” Mann said. “And I don't think by putting people in jail ain't going to make them pay the money, you know what I mean? It ain't going to help them.”
'Barely getting along’
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people across the country who are ticketed for minor offenses are sentenced to probation managed by private companies, according to Human Rights Watch. In Alabama, it’s become a vicious cycle of fines, mounting fees and even jail time.
JCS collects fines for violations like drunk driving, speeding or driving without a license, all at no cost to taxpayers. The Atlanta-based company charged Mann an additional monthly fee of $35 and also dug up old fines that Mann owed from past offenses dating back to the 1990s, including disorderly conduct, public intoxication and resisting arrest.
“I was a drinker, heavy drinker,” he said. “I was wild.”
But Mann was a sober, married churchgoer when he started making regular payments to the city – paying down a debt that JCS claimed was almost $9,000.
“That's all I was doing – digging holes, making it deeper and deeper,” he said. “At first, I felt hopeless that nothing could be done.”
Danny Evans, Mann’s attorney, has filed a class-action lawsuit against JCS, accusing it of illegally preying on the poor.
“They pretend that they're a probation service,” Evans said. “In fact, they're not certified as state or federal probation officers. They're not trained as probation officers. What it provides to the city is a collection service.”
Mann said he was jailed for 30 days for non-payment. On another occasion, the Army veteran said JCS told him that if he didn’t pay $600 by the end of the day the town would lock him up again.
“He looked like he was crying,” said Mann’s wife, Rita Mann. “It scared me, ‘cause we didn't have $600. We were barely getting along … making and trying to pay bills.”
Rita Mann was able to borrow the money from her aunt. But she said the monthly JCS bills were unrelenting, even when her husband was in the hospital with an infection and she begged the company for a respite.
“I was struggling. I had to go to the hospital every day for my husband,” she said, her voice quivering. “I almost lost my husband. He likely died. And I explained that to them and they still didn't care. It was all about their money.”
An 'offender-funded' system
Deaundra Bell, from Birmingham, Ala., said his probation started after police spotted him drinking a beer on a friend’s porch and ticketed him for public intoxication.
“It put pressure on me and my family 'cause I can't provide for them right now,” Bell said. “And it's really hard to get a job and I have bills to pay.”
In Prattville, Ala., Teresa Halston’s three sons have all struggled to make their JCS payments.
“They mail you notices, saying, ‘You've gotta pay this amount of money by this date, or we're gonna put you in jail,’” she said. “They mail you little postcards. I mean, it's just a bombardment. They're bill collectors.”
Hali Woods fell into debt with JCS when she was only 16. In August 2013, Woods was ticketed for not wearing a seatbelt. That $25 ticket coupled with court costs ballooned into $300. She paid that off, but is now back at town hall, saddled with another debt because her mother can’t afford a new tag for the family’s only car.
In 2012, Judge Hub Harrington temporarily shut down JCS in an Alabama town, calling the “offender-funded” system a “debtor’s prison.”
“I called it judicially sanctioned extortion racket,” said Harrington, now a retired circuit court judge. “What happens is it's kind of a shakedown, because the individuals are told, ‘If you don't bring a payment I will put you in jail.’”
In the 1980s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to lock someone up simply because they can’t pay a debt, especially if there hasn’t been a hearing to determine economic status.
“There's nothing legal about it, which is the basis of my opinion. In fact, I think I even wrote something that violations were too egregious and too numerous to mention in the short space,” Harrington said. “They were following none of the procedures set out by the constitution, by the State of Alabama, by the Code of Criminal Procedure.”
JCS CEO Robert McMichael declined America Tonight’s repeated requests for an interview. However, two years ago, he wrote an op-ed saying, “JCS does not levy fees or fines” against those who are “ordered by the court.” He added: “JCS does not have the authority to jail people. Only the judge may do so.”
It’s true that JCS doesn’t directly send people to jail. But that isn’t always clear to the debtor, according to Harrington.
“They use that apparent authority to the utmost to coerce and threaten and extort the people that they're serving,” he said.
Easing the burden
Alabama State Sen. Cam Ward believes private probation companies can serve a useful purpose.
“There's a role for it, because there's a lot of municipalities [that] have no way in the world of collecting a lot of those fines and fees. And that's not fair to them,” Ward told America Tonight. “Privatizing part of it’s fine as long as there's good, proper government oversight to make sure it's being carried out properly.”
Earlier this year, Ward introduced legislation to better regulate the industry, including more oversight and training, which failed to pass.
“If I get a $100 fine or citation I should be required to pay it and there should be a method to collect it,” Ward said.
But Evans, Mann’s attorney, doesn’t believe a for-profit company belongs in the probation business.
“There's nothing that I can tell you that makes sense about it,” Evans said. “It's a system that's run amok, that is completely ignorant and has no concept or any consideration for these constitutional protections.”
After eight years on probation – six years beyond Alabama’s legal limit – and thousands of dollars paid, Elvis Mann finally won his fight and his fines were dismissed. It’s a small victory Mann and his lawyer hope to build on through the class-action suit for the thousands of others caught in the cycle of debt and unable to dig themselves out.
“When they said I'm dismissed that was the happiest day of my life,” Mann said. “The burden just lifted up off of me.”