About half of the 100 Alabama cities that once contracted with a private probation company, JCS, have cancelled their agreements for the company to collect city debts.
The cancellations come after the Southern Poverty Law Center in June settled a lawsuit with Clanton, Ala, which had used JCS. The SPLC told officials there, and in about 100 other municipalities, that JCS contracts are illegal and that the company’s fine-collection tactics can amount to extortion.
The quick reaction by local governments around the state makes less likely stories like that of Sakeena White, a single mother of three. She lives in Hueytown with her sister and her youngest, a 15-year-old. Last January, she was heading home from Jefferson County Family Court when a Hueytown police officer pulled her over. She had an expired tag and no insurance. Her fines amounted to somewhere between $400 and $600, White recalls. “And I wasn’t working,” she says.
After a bank layoff, White has worked temp jobs on and off in recent years. She took office jobs, administrative assistant work, whatever she could find. None of the jobs paid more than $10 an hour. White didn’t know how she’d pay off her traffic fines. “My head was swimming,” she says.
She went to municipal court, where she said the judge reduced her fine by a bit, “but he said not to worry, there was a payment plan they could set up,” she says. That payment plan was administered through JCS, a private probation company that Hueytown and dozens of other Alabama cites contracted with to take on debt collections.
How JCS works
In 2010, Inc.com rated JCS one of the fastest-growing privately held companies in the nation, its revenue more than doubling in three years.
JCS has 40 offices in Alabama. It made the often onerous task of debt collection a non-issue for cities and towns, especially those with small court staffs. Sara Zampierin, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, explains how it worked. “Essentially JCS approached many cities in Alabama and said, ‘We have a great deal for you. We will collect money for you, and we won’t charge you, the city, anything.’” Instead, JCS said it would charge defendants an extra fee to be on probation services. “And a lot of cities accepted that offer. It’s only many years later that cities are rethinking this because of the abuses that have come to light,” she says.
The company declined an interview due to ongoing litigation, “however, we can say that JCS operates at the discretion of the court system with which we are contracted. We are not a decision maker as it relates to sentencing and establishing fines. Our contracts are public record, and we provide a service for municipalities that would otherwise not have the resources to enforce the collection of fines that have been imposed by the court,” a spokesman said in an email.
After the Southern Poverty Law Center settled the lawsuit in June, cities responded en masse. The most recent cities to drop JCS include Fairhope, Pleasant Grove, Hoover (one of its oldest clients), Fort Payne, Sylvania, Level Plains, Mountain Brook, and Lake View.
Just under 50 municipalities still use JCS. Why? More revenue from fines and court fees. Using JCS’s debt-collecting muscle, cities have increased their revenues in some cases by hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. That doesn’t include the money that JCS is keeping for itself, a figure JCS is under no obligation to report that to cities.
That fee usually was about $40 per month. That might not sound like a lot to some, but for poor Alabamians, who were most affected by this, it was. Especially when you consider that falling behind on payments—which many did—meant the meter on JCS fees kept running. In some cities when people couldn’t pay, JCS employees threatened to revoke their probation, which would result in jail time.
Zampierin says in Clanton, for instance, JCS employees would often use the threat of jail and set more frequent appointments to get people to bring as much money as they could. “They wanted to extort as much money out of people as possible,” she says.
I talked with about half a dozen people on JCS in different municipalities and many shared this experience. Some people had to report to JCS multiple times a week; some went to jail in hopes it would reduce their fines (in some municipalities, jail time counts toward fines).
Reactions from cities
Cities are reluctant to discuss the matter, even those that have cut ties with JCS. Hoover, Pleasant Grove, and Mountain Brook didn’t return calls. And a few, including Montevallo and Prattville, spoke with me to say only that they no longer used JCS and couldn’t discuss the matter further. A few cities and towns referred me to their municipal judges and attorneys.
Joy Momen, magistrate supervisor for Vestavia Hills, says the City Council recently decided to cancel its contract with JCS. “I guess we’re going to try to stay under the radar,” she says. “I don’t know that JCS will stay in business too much longer.” Momen says the city will hire a full-time employee to fill the void left by JCS. “There are going to be twice as many phone calls and twice as many people coming to the window now,” Momen says. JCS sent the city a check twice a month. “Now we’re going to be seeing people individually,” she says.
Momen has no complaints about JCS, saying indigent people didn’t have to pay the monthly fees. “They were a very good company to work with. They were fine,” she says, “and it cut down on our workload a lot.” Momen says JCS would waive the fee for people who couldn’t pay, and that no one was jailed in the city as a result of not coming up with the money. “They were very lenient,” she says. “They would let people skip 13 or 14 appointments.”
That wasn’t the case for many people on JCS, including Sakeena White of Hueytown and others I talked with. White had to check in at JCS every Friday and make some sort of payment, if not towards the fine, then at the very least come up with $40 a month for JCS’s fee. White says her boss was understanding, but it was a hassle. “I’d have to leave early. That was a headache,” she says. “And you could only send another person to pay for you once.” Meetings at the JCS office had to be during their business hours. “It would be different if you could pay by phone,” White says. “They tell you you can’t even put payments in the door.”
White says zipping over from work on Lakeshore Drive to JCS’s offices in Hueytown was stressful. “It was like a pressure cooker trying to fly over there and make it back,” she says.
She is free of that hassle these days, and her fine is paid off thanks to a stranger.
Zampierin of SPLC says someone contacted them after hearing about their work with JCS and offered to help Sakeena. The person sent White a check to pay off the balance late this summer.