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Private Probation Companies Prove Corrupt in Tennessee

Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft claimed private probation companies have "created a nightmare" in the Memphis, Tennessee probation system. Judge Craft, who is also chairman of the Private Probation Services Council, said that probation companies currently charge probationers fees "that frankly are not justified" and use probationers for "pet projects that benefit the companies." His assessment concludes that the current system is a hotbed for fraud, conflicts of interest, extortion and accuses operators of basically accepting bribes for not revoking probation.

"Drug addicts need to be turned around but instead are being hit up for money," Craft says. He also presented a 13-page proposal to the Legislature's Corrections Oversight Committee which cited other questionable practices including: a court clerk who used his position to supply clients to a spouse's private prison company; a Memphis private probation company where 2 employees oversee 1,100 probationers; and probation companies owned by convicted felons.

Some of the private companies charged probationers $35 for drug tests that only cost $15. They would then charge $100 for a second test. Some companies would charge a $25 "non-reporting fee" which allowed probationers to call in periodically rather than report.

Craft fears that judges are placed in a position of liability by the current system since, when they have to choose between companies to carry out their sentence, they can potentially be accused of favoritism. He says that the last judge over the PPSC "was so disgusted [with the situation] he just quit going to meetings."

Private probation companies were given legislative authority to monitor misdemeanor probationers in 1998. At the time, however, no rules were made to regulate the companies. Now, no one is able to determine just how deep the corruption runs.

Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson admits that legislators are unsure of the exact number of private probation companies, their locations, or the number of probationers actually under their care.

"It's a mess," laments Jackson. He says that the potential for huge profits has corrupted the system.

Judge Craft blames the state attorney general's office and the Department of Commerce and Insurance for not implementing his rules sooner.

"No one cared," Craft said. He estimates that there are 30,000 to 40,000 misdemeanor probationers statewide.

The problem is not confined to Tennessee. Sabrina Byrd is a victim of Georgia's probation system run amok. Ms. Byrd, who had a spotless criminal record, spent 17 days in Fulton County's College Park Jail because she was unable to pay an $852 fine and $390 in probation fees. Ms. Byrd was cited for violating the city's leash law and not having her dogs vaccinated for rabies.

Palmer Singleton, attorney for the Southern Center of Human Rights describes Ms. Byrd as soft-spoken and law-abiding. Singleton claims that Ms. Byrd was jailed by the Fulton County Superior Court for no other reason than she was poor.

Byrd is unemployed, receives food stamps and intermittent child support payments. Her case was being handled by the private probation firm Professional Probation Services(PPS). Frustrated by the company's constant demands for money, Ms. Byrd quit reporting which eventually led to her 25-day sentence by Municipal Court Judge George Barron.

"I thought debtor's prison had been outlawed in this state," said Joseph Lowery of the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda. Lowery, who is also a former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, calls Ms. Byrd's punishment "medieval."

Singleton agrees. He maintains that Byrd would never have gone to jail if she had been able to pay the $39.00-a-month probation fee. With a few phone calls to local pet stores Singleton was able to get Ms. Byrd's dogs spayed and vaccinated.

"The amazing thing is that the probation company did nothing to help this woman with the dogs. They just taxed her for being poor," said Singleton. He decries the present system which he says puts too much focus on punishment and little emphasis on helping people solve their legal problems.

"Once we tapped into the right resources, we can help the dogs. We can't do that for Sabrina Byrd?" he asks. Singleton says that Ms. Byrd's sentence violates her Equal Protection rights and that SCHR is considering mounting a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the fines that led to her imprisonment.

Sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mid-South News, The Tennessean

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