(HRW) – Gina Harper is a Gardendale, Alabama resident who pled guilty to driving on a revoked driver’s license. When she couldn’t pay the US$715 in court costs, she was placed on probation with Private Probation Services, and sentenced to 48 hours in jail. A few months later, Gina owed nearly $900- the court fees, plus monthly fees for PPS.
Thanks to a recent court settlement, no one who comes before the Gardendale Municipal Court in the next year on misdemeanor charges will end up deeper in debt because of extra fees charged by a private probation company. This is a step forward in combatting predatory practices rampant across Alabama that are crying out for reform.
In March 2018, following a lawsuit over the practice, the city and municipal court signed a settlement agreement cancelling their contract with PPS, agreeing not to sign new contracts with private probation companies for one year, and agreeing to give people on probation credit toward court fees for payments to PPS.
Before the agreement, if a person on probation with the Gardendale Municipal Court could not pay fines, fees and court costs immediately and in full, the Gardendale Municipal Court would place them on probation with PPS.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, PPS effectively controlled the length of probation, would extend probation when people couldn’t pay, and was allowed to charge its own $40 monthly service fee. SPLC alleges that if people could only afford partial payments, PPS would put the money toward the company’s monthly service charge instead of toward the person’s court fees. When people did not keep up with payments, they were often detained for several days.
The Gardendale agreement eases financial pressures on probationers in Gardendale who have trouble paying court fees. At the same time, recommendations from Human Rights Watch’s 2014 report on the issue remain unaddressed. In particular, state and local governments and local courts throughout Alabama should increase oversight over operations of probation companies and treatment of probationers. Courts should not delegate their own responsibilities to private probation companies, and state and local governments should consider the rights of all involved when contracting with private probation companies.