Multimillion Dollar Settlement Casts Light on US Probation Abuses

(HRW) – A private probation company in Tennessee recently reached an important settlement in a class action suit alleging wide-ranging abuses, a victory for those fighting the industry’s predatory practices that hurt the poor.

Providence Community Corrections (PCC) agreed to pay US$14 million to settle the suit in Rutherford County, Tennessee. The county was also a defendant for contracting PCC, and agreed to pay plaintiffs US$300,000. Rutherford County also committed to ending its use of private probation companies, to waiving fees and fines for people living in poverty, and to stop imposing probation on people purely because they are unable to pay court costs.

The complaint alleged PCC engaged in numerous questionable practices, describing the conflicts of interest that can arise when a company profits from probationers’ fees and the dangerous incentives to employ every tool – some illegal and unconstitutional – to ensure payment.

For example, individuals had to pay a multitude of fees directly to PCC – everything from supervision and random drug tests to unlawful surcharges, like “picture fees.” Those who were too poor to pay were put on supervised probation, incurring additional costs. In some cases, these fees exceeded the criminal fine. The complaint alleges that when plaintiffs, many of whom dependent on government benefits, tried to get fee waivers, PCC’s complex process made them unobtainable. Many said they lost their homes, jobs, and cars trying to keep up with payments.

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The complaint also maintains that when someone fell behind on payments, PCC officers had the discretion to “violate” them, threatening jail time to coerce payment. One plaintiff claimed PCC even falsified drug tests as a way to pressure him to pay.

If the judge signs off on the settlement, the complainants will be eligible for compensation. But this is just for people in one county. Private probation companies continue to operate across the United States – often without anything close to the kind of strict government oversight needed to prevent serious abuse. Human Rights Watch documented private probation abuses in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi in a 2014 report and is examining companies in other states. Around the country, lawsuits similar to the Tennessee case have led jurisdictions to reconsider the use of companies to supervise probationers.

With growing scrutiny and outcry, counties and state governments cannot deny knowing about serious problems with private probation, and should make sure abuses don’t take place in their jurisdiction.

This report prepared by Komala Ramachandra for Human Rights Watch.