HOLLYWOOD, Ala. (WHNT) - The notion of a debtor's prison, or going to jail because of your inability to pay a debt, was outlawed in the United States back in the 1800s. But some say it's making a comeback, right here in Alabama. WHNT News 19 has been investigating the problem and is Taking Action to expose it.
In Alabama, it seems we've found a way to make it a crime to be poor. A lot of Alabamians live paycheck to paycheck. So having to come up with several hundred dollars all at once to pay a traffic ticket can devastate a family's budget. That's where these private probation companies come in. They collect the money for the courts. Their fees are passed on to the driver. But in some cases, it can take years to pay off a simple traffic ticket, and those who can't pay may wind up going to jail.
There are several private probation companies operating in Alabama, including Judicial Correction Services, or JCS. At its height, they were operating in about a hundred Alabama municipal court systems. But then, their methods came to light.
"I mean, it's depressing, it crushes a man," says James Sherrell. He knows the JCS system pretty well. Sherrell was stopped in the Jackson County town of Hollywood and charged with having an expired tag and driving with no insurance. He has been paying on those tickets since 2009.
"There's $1,100 worth of fines here that I've more than paid several times. I've got nine months of jail time built and each time that I go to jail, I've been nine times on the same case, my fine goes up," Sherrell says.
"There is no such thing as a free lunch. Someone is paying for it and what they're doing is transferring that cost onto the poor," according to Sam Brooke, Deputy Legal Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery.
JCS assumes the responsibility of collecting fines and court fees at no charge to the towns and cities that use them. They make their money off the backs of individuals coming through the courts. JCS charges a $10 "set-up" fee and $40 a month for the privilege of collecting your money. And not a dime of that goes toward your fine or court costs.
"We can't have a criminal justice system that is a two-tier justice system that treats the poor differently than those who are well off," Brooke tells WHNT News 19.
"They created a debtor's prison," according to Skyline Town Council member Kym Chapman. She says when residents began telling her about their dealings with JCS, she discovered the Southern Poverty Law Center was in the midst of a lawsuit with the City of Clanton over their contract with JCS. She took the information to her town council and they canceled their contract with the company. The town clerks are once again collecting the fines.
"They're working with them. Our girls work hard up there and they're really working with them. If they can't make all their payment, they work with them," Chapman explained.
"[They] told me that I was a hindrance to their system, that the only way out from up under this is for me to do what I gotta do and to give them their money because as long as this rocks on, it's going to build and build and build," Sherrell says.
Brooke and the SPLC are watching the situation closely. "I’m still hopeful that community leaders will realize that this is not something that they intended to sign up for and will do the right thing voluntarily without us having to sue,” Brooke says.
In the past few weeks, about 60 Alabama towns and cities, including Hollywood, have canceled their contracts with JCS. But the SPLC tells us the company is still operating in about 40 municipal courts in Alabama, including courts in Marshall, Morgan and DeKalb counties.
There are several well documented cases of abuse by JCS, including some who were facing major illnesses and couldn't work yet were threatened with jail when they fell behind on their payments.
WHNT News 19 spoke with the Town Clerk in Hollywood on Monday. Suzanne Holland tells me they were very satisfied with JCS. She believes the company is getting a bad rap because of only a handful of people.
For the record, we made a number of efforts to speak with someone from the company. None of our calls or emails were answered.