Roy Exum: Why We Jail Our Poor

Monday, January 9, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I don’t know what Les Hayes, a repugnant municipal judge in Montgomery, Ala., has on his list of things to do today but putting on the black robes of justice will not be one of them. Instead, perhaps he can cloak himself in shame. Last week the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission placed him on probation without pay until October for somewhat blatantly violating the canons of justice. As you will soon see, judges like him should actually be hung for cruelty.

Ol’ Les, it seems, forgot that being poor is not a crime. And because he was lazy, stupid, or a mix of both, he allowed a fiendish judiciary model of “for-profit probation” to infiltrate his court and imprison those unable to pay the gaudy “service fees” until their friends and families could catch up on the payments. Until a payment can be made, the offender stays in jail and the bill – you betcha’ – continues to mount for both the offender and – voila! – the taxpayer.

In August, 2016, the American Bar Association strongly vilified and condemned the use of for-profit, privatized probation companies that  -- in essence – are totally funded by the offenders/probationers themselves. You are probably unaware that some of the worst of society’s pariahs are in our midst and their “prey,” for lack of a better word, is helpless to do anything about it -- people in poverty don’t have any judges or attorneys or sheriffs they can call as a friend.

Right now it is believed there are some 30 private probation companies in Tennessee and it is estimated that, in Georgia, the “for profit” companies did $40 million in their filthy yet legal scheme last year.

What happens is the elected county court officials “save the taxpayers money” by farming out their collections business. In Rutherford County (Murfreesboro) it got so bad the “for profit” crowd was banned last spring and it was even learned -- if you dare believe this -- a defense attorney who really wants to help people actually owned one of the “for profit” outfits in Middle Tennessee.

Robert Arnold, the sheriff in Murfreesboro, told it like it is: “Once (an offender) gets caught up in it, it’s like a rat wheel … you can never get out of because of some of the fines and probation fees.”

In Tennessee the “for profit probation” game is regulated by a quite laughable state agency called the Private Probation Services Council, which meets four times a year (usually via conference call.) The chairman, Memphis judge Chris Craft, freely admits he doesn’t like private probation companies because the motivation for profits by those in positions of authority can create problems. Judge Craft told the Tennessean, “We don’t want (the for-profits) to make money illegally off these persons … there is so much potential for abuse.”

You think! The companies make their money by charging fees but when the Rutherford County scam was unearthed last spring, it was learned the “TN PROB COUNCIL” stamp found on every receipt was for the $1.00 paid by each probationer every quarter, or, each time the council meets in a year. The evil we inflict on our poor and destitute is totally unexplainable to me. I’d give anything to hear “The Pearly Gates” answer to for-profit probation.

Last year in Murfreesboro a part-time construction worker, Steven Gibbs, for example, couldn’t afford to pay the monthly amount so the company supervising his probation had him jailed at taxpayer expense. No judge, no lawyer, no court – and shut up ‘til you pay up. Then he failed a drug test, got arrested, and the new charges – and “management fees” ($50 a month in some cases) -- got heaped on his original bill. Any simpleton can see the business model cannot possibly fail because poor people can never pay it off.

Right now there are roughly 9 million on probation in the United States, over half for mere misdemeanors or petty crimes. So some of our elected officials are absolutely delighted to let the “for profit” take over collections because – bare truth -- the “for profits” have virtually no scruples and have to answer to hardly any one for legally harassing and milking the poor. Yet our delightful mayors and council members have washed their hands of their duly- appointed task, don’t you see?

In some instances, the court clerk is often the spineless knave to the racket. After being carefully cultivated, he plants the seed for his office “to save taxpayer money” by farming out what the voters, in fact, elected him to do. Now his biggest job of the day is to write “for deposit only” on whatever check the “for profit” bunch sends in, this once the private company scrapes its fees off the top. “Hey, the taxpayers pay me just to manage the office. I’m too busy for collections  … Want some more coffee? Another doughnut?”

Try this: Cindy Rodriquez, age 51, depends on Social Security alone to provide for her and her teenage daughter. In 2014 she was charged with shoplifting and put on probation for less than a year. Her fine and court costs were $578 and by the time her probation should have ended, she had paid it. Yet due to the for-profit’s fees, only $66 had been paid in actual court costs. That leaves $512 and Cindy, now with a broken tooth she can’t afford to fix, is still very much in a villain’s grip. Who cares? She’s poor.

Hub Harrington of Birmingham, an Alabama circuit judge, literally shut down the court in Harpersville a few years ago after finding it was little more than “a judicially sanctioned extortion racket.” What’s worse, the atrocity had gone on for years. The judge was livid over what his investigation found. “If you turn your courthouse into a profit center, this is what you get.”

Judge Harrington found there is "virtually undisputed evidence" that some defendants "have been subjected to repeated and ongoing violations of almost every safeguard afforded by the United States Constitution, the laws of the state of Alabama, and the Rules of Criminal Procedure."

How bad was it? His findings were the violations "are so numerous as to defy a detailed chronicling in this short space,” and because of the shock waves, Alabama Circuit Court Judge Marvin Wiggins was censured last year after he gave indigent defendants an ultimatum: come up with the cash, donate blood or go to jail.

Most judges got the message and, after Judge Armstead Lester Hayes III, the presiding judge of Montgomery's municipal court, was laid out to dry last week, court reform in Alabama is already at a gallop.

Most of the largest cities in the state are allowing defendants to sign “signature bonds” without having to pay money up front for misdemeanors. The true savings to the taxpayers are immediate –the jail populations have dramatically decreased. In Hoover, the number of defendants in municipal court has dropped “from around  40 on an average day to just about five,” according to Susan Fuqua, the court director.

“No court wants to keep a person in jail because they can’t post bond in a minor case,” said Ms. Fuqua, who is also president of the state’s magistrates association. “These reforms will ensure this will never happen again.” In Mobile there is a 50 percent decrease in city court detainees and a drop of one-third in Montgomery. (With Judge Hayes now suspended, it is anticipated this will soon be greater.)

The city of Mobile now allows defendants to be released on personal recognizance bonds. The city also has a judge or magistrate on hand seven days a week to set bonds and deal with appropriate bail amounts.

“Defendants are allowed to go home, but in some cases must serve eight hour shifts at the jail, painting or mowing. It allows them to serve time without being separated from their families and saves the city what it would cost to keep them in jail. Food and medical costs are dramatically reduced,” according to one (delighted) court official.

So who do we see about reform in Hamilton County, where 600 men are being tragically kept in an overflowing jail? Who do we see to explain how a readily available seven-day municipal court would save the county untold thousands in weekend jail costs alone? Who do we see to make sure none of our judges – each and all excellent – will never draw a judicial inquiry because of the slimy leeches in the “for-profit” probation scheme?

I mean, who do we see about reform in our Hamilton County this very week? Our county mayor, our county commissioners and every judge now seated should never forget the Rule of Two Rights … do the right thing, right now. Handled right, we could be in the reform business by this Friday.

This is an easy fix. Right now.

royexum@aol.com


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