From a Spark to a Flame

Amazing news here in Alabama this week, as the Southern Poverty Law Center announced that 54 towns across the State are ending their contracts with private probation company Judicial Correction Services. (Read about it here) Those who have followed my blog or the news in this area know that JCS (as well as some other private probation operations) charge a monthly fee to low income defendants on “pay only” probation, often resulting in already poor people paying hundreds or thousands more than their original fine, and sometimes being jailed for failing to pay, all because they were unable to pay in the first place. We call that debtors’ prison, and it’s unconstitutional.

A broad coalition of lawyers and nonprofit organizations can share credit for this tremendous development: SPLC, the nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law and its amazing lawyer Alec Karakatsanis, the Evans Law Firm, and solo practitioner Matt Swerdlin, among others, all have actively opposed private probation and debtors’ prison practices through litigation, creating the pressure needed to bring those practices to an end.

But I have to give special props to Baker Donelson’s own Kevin Garrison, whose work in the early lawsuit against the City of Harpersville, Alabama, helped to light a very public spark that grew into a mighty flame. Back in July of 2012, the Circuit Court judge presiding over the Harpersville case issued an injunction that labeled the “appalling” and “egregious abuses” there tantamount to operating a debtors’ prison, “a judicially sanctioned extortion racket” that he ordered immediately stopped. It was this injunction that grabbed the headlines, and the attention of the community of civil rights lawyers who began to also take up the cause. This victory will not be limited to Alabama – we are working to light the flame all around the country.

Congratulations to Kevin for his role in obtaining the changes that are now being made, changes that will improve the lives of thousands of low income Alabamians.  We will continue fighting for their rights, in Alabama and elsewhere.