Big News: Progress in Tennessee
This blog port is republished with permission from the Civil Rights Corps mailing list. It was originally disseminated on 2/16/19.
We have exciting news! A victory in a case challenging money bail and private probation. Thursday morning, a federal judge in the Middle District of Tennessee issued a decision prohibiting Giles County from jailing people simply because they cannot afford to pay money bail following arrest for an alleged misdemeanor probation violation. Our complaint alleges that for years Giles County and two private probation companies have threatened people with arrest, jail time, and years of extended probation supervision simply because they are too poor to pay their court costs, fines, fees, and surcharges the companies demand.
Judge William L. Campbell, Jr. held that before the government can detain a person, it must provide the person with basic procedural protections — notice and a hearing — and cannot order a person to be kept in a cage unless it is absolutely necessary because alternatives are inadequate to protect the community or assure appearance.
In the ruling, Judge Campbell highlighted the experience of one individual who is still on supervised probation simply because she cannot pay her fines and fees. She was arrested in April 2013 and jailed for 10 days because she could not pay $2500. The Court explained:
At the time [of her arrest], Ms. Webb was unemployed and relied on limited government benefits. She also shared some income and expenses with her adult, disabled son. Ms. Webb’s declaration states: “While on probation, I have been renting a room at a friend’s house for about $350 per month. Sometimes he asks me to pitch in for utilities, and I have paid as much as $200 per month, though I often cannot afford to pay anything. At times, our water has been cut off because we couldn’t afford to pay the water bill. Without much money, I have struggled to afford both food and a place to live. In the past year, I have sometimes had to go without food for up to four days because I had no money and have had to rely on friends to feed me. I often can’t afford to buy shampoo, toothpaste, clothing, and other basic items I need for basic life.” Because she could not afford $2,500 or the few hundred dollars a commercial bonding company would have charged her, she remained in jail for ten days after arrest and before she appeared in court for a revocation hearing.
This decision is a victory for the poorest people in Giles County, but we're not done. This claim was brought as part of a larger lawsuit challenging the unconstitutional misdemeanor probation system in Giles County, a “user-funded” scheme that traps poor people in cycles of debt, probation, and jailing.
We are proud to fight alongside partners at Hughes Socol Piers Rednick & Dym, Barrett Johnston, and Kyle Mothershead on this case.
And of course, we could not keep this fight going without you. Thank you for supporting our work.