Residents' Escalating Debts To Probation Company Forgiven, Prompting Lawsuit For Lost Income
In 2005, Jaime Mann was cited for several traffic violations in Craighead County — not having insurance, not wearing a seatbelt, and hazardous driving. She was charged about $500. She paid some of it, but then she started racking up fees and fines for the money and community service hours she owed.
"And then it started spiraling out of control, and I was so mad, I remember, because I thought, ‘I paid this ticket,'" she said.
She paid nearly $16,000 over the course of a decade, mostly for traffic violations and for late fees, fines, and missed community service hours. She also spent a total of nearly two months in jail and ended up doing nearly 400 hours of community service.
On top of all that, she was charged additional monthly fees by the Justice Network, the probation company managing her case.
Mann was caught up in a system that has now come under scrutiny. Last year, two Craighead County judges opted to grant amnesty to many probationers, and that prompted the company to sue the county for lost income.
“The Justice Network did not come out on their own and decide who was going to be on probation, what services were going to be provided, or how long they were going to be in this program,” said Randy Fishman, attorney for the Justice Network.
The company is based in Memphis but has offices in Arkansas and Mississippi. In 2015, it reported charging probationers over $245,000 in fees. Last year, after 20 years in Craighead County, the Justice Network left town. That was after Amnesty Days resulting in long lines of probationers desperate to have their fees and fines forgiven.
Judge Tommy Fowler was one of the two judges who granted amnesties.
“There was a fee that was assessed over and above the initial probation fee," he told KAIT Channel 8 in Jonesboro in February of last year, "and so that’s some of the things that I may see in my dockets, and I have scratched every single dime out, and I will continue to do that."
John Miles, a pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Jonesboro, helped judges David Bowling and Fowler get elected in 2016 on a platform of getting rid of the Justice Network.
The company, Miles says, went after the most vulnerable people in his community.
“The only people you find at the Justice Network were the poorest people in this county. I mean they were ruthless to them.”
According to Harvard Law School fellow Chiraag Baains, the private probation business model presents a conflict of interest. The companies communicate directly with judges about probationers’ progress and have influence.
“For example, the company may decide, 'We’re not getting paid here. We want this person to spend some time in jail and maybe they’ll work harder to pay us,'" said Bains.
Not all judges are convinced the company, or probation, has been a problem. Justice Keith Blackman, one of the county’s previous judges, said in a brief phone interview that the fees, fines, and service hours he ordered were manageable.
But Mann says because the court revoked her driver’s license she couldn’t get to her community service hours.
“It doesn’t matter what you do, you are not going to get ahead,” she said.
Convinced that the amnesty didn’t apply to her situation, Mann got a private loan, at an interest rate of 9.44 percent, to pay off her remaining debt. She says she still doesn’t trust the court system.
An appeals court is now considering whether a federal judge was right to throw out the Justice Network’s case.
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