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Tennessee county ends for-profit probation, waives debts

January 14, 2022 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Middle Tennessee county can no longer require misdemeanor probationers to pay the cost of their supervision under a consent decree signed by a federal judge on Thursday.

In addition to ending so-called “user-funded probation,” Giles County agreed to waive all past debts for anyone with a misdemeanor conviction as of the signing of the decree. And the county agreed to recall all outstanding warrants for violations of misdemeanor probation.

The decree, signed by U.S. District Judge William Campbell Jr., settles a case filed in 2018 in federal court in Nashville. It accused Giles County and the for-profit probation companies it contracted with of using the threat of jail and longer probation to squeeze money out of indigent offenders.

The plaintiffs claimed their probation was so onerous that they sold possessions and diverted money needed for food, utilities, medicine and rent to pay the fees charged by the probation companies in addition to their court costs.

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“Our lead plaintiff, Karen McNeil, lost her housing and slept in a tent because she was so afraid of arrest that she paid her probation fees instead of her rent,” said Elizabeth Rossi, lead attorney for the plaintiffs and director of strategic initiatives at Civil Rights Corps. “It’s hard to overestimate the stress and trauma of knowing that if you don’t make this payment, you might to go to jail.”

Rossi said the waiver of past debts should clear the way for people to get drivers licenses reinstated in cases where they were revoked for a failure to pay court-related fees.

After Giles County recalls all misdemeanor warrants, it has 30 days to reassess and reissue any it chooses under the terms of the consent decree. That includes a new system for determining who can and can’t afford to pay court-related costs. The county can no longer collect fees from indigent probationers. The decree also prohibits the county from jailing misdemeanor offenders who violate probation unless they first have a hearing before a judge who determines that detention is necessary.

Giles County agreed to pay $2 million to settle the lawsuit. The money will be split between the named plaintiffs, their attorneys, and other misdemeanor offenders who were on probation in Giles County during the period covered by the suit.

A separate aspect of the lawsuit challenged the practice of charging a predetermined bail amount to misdemeanor offenders arrested for probation violations. The predetermined bail did not take into account whether an offender was indigent. In 2019, Campbell ordered the Giles County sheriff to stop jailing people simply because they could not afford bail.

In his ruling, Campbell cited the case of a man who was held for 22 days before his first in-court appearance because he could not afford a $500 cash bond. Another person was detained 21 days when he could not afford a $210 cash bond. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later affirmed Campbell’s decision.