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Preliminary Injunction Granted in Class-action Suit Challenging Private Probation Services in Tennessee

Another victory in the fight against debtors’ prisons was achieved with the grant of an injunction by a Tennessee federal district court. The preliminary injunction, issued in a class-action lawsuit in December 2015, prohibits a private probation company from jailing probationers because they are unable to pay fees related to their supervision.

The suit “addresses one aspect of the growing privatization of the criminal justice system,” the court wrote. Rutherford County contracted with Pathways Community Corrections, previously known as Providence Community Corrections (PCC), which operates in 45 states, to provide misdemeanor probation services.

The payment of “all required supervision fees, court fines, and court costs” is a rule of probation, and a probationer who is unable to make payments is technically in violation of his or her supervision conditions. Other conditions, such as community service work, drug tests and various offense-related classes, may also be required and incur fees.

PCC charged probationers $45 a month for simply being on probation plus $20 for each drug test, which could be administered at a PCC employee’s whim. It also charged set-up fees, community service fees and even a “picture fee.” Those required to participate in trash removal as community service work had to pay a $132 fee. Since the only revenue PCC derived from the contract was from fees imposed on probationers, it had “a direct financial stake in every decision and outcome in any individual’s probation case,” the lawsuit claimed.

“It’s an extortion racket with the threat of jail and arrest,” said attorney Alec Karakatsanis, co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law, who brought the suit along with the law firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz.

PCC’s practice of imposing fees resulted in probationers paying the company rather than their court costs and fines, which ended up “trapping probationers in a cycle of debts, arrest, extended supervision, jail and more debts.” The main premise of the lawsuit was the “defendants’ failure to account for indigency when the only probation violation alleged is nonpayment and when using secured money bonds to jail probationers pending revocation proceedings,” the district court wrote.

The court noted that in evidence were PCC affidavits “with the bond amount already filled in by PCC’s probation officers.” While the defendants claimed that when a probationer’s only violation was failure to pay they were released on their own recognizance, the court had evidence to the contrary in at least two cases. It also found a failure to pick up trash for community service work could result in a substantive violation requiring a bond even in cases where that failure was attributed to an inability to pay associated fees.

In some cases, the bond was two or three times what a probationer owed on their supervision fees, which guaranteed they would remain in jail or plead guilty to obtain release. The district court found such pleas “troubling,” as they may “trap probationers in a pernicious cycle for years on end.” One probationer’s term of supervision with PCC was extended at least five times, leaving her under the company’s control since early 2010.

The court held that “[a]lthough Defendants do not bother to take it into account, extreme poverty often produces the underlying probation violation and results in prolonged detention.”

The plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction to prohibit seeking, serving or executing a warrant for a probation violation that would lead to the arrest of the plaintiffs or subject them to a “secured money bond” due to probation violations resulting from failure to pay supervision fees.

The district court granted the motion, which provided injunctive relief on a class-wide basis; as a result, 13 prisoners held at the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center on fee-related probation violations were released. According to the sheriff’s office, the injunction also affected around 9,900 arrest warrants for probation violations. PCC’s contract with Rutherford County expired at the end of March 2016 and was not renewed. The county has since formed its own probation department.

The defendants appealed the order granting the preliminary injunction, though their appeal was later dismissed by agreement of the parties. On June 9, 2016, the district court granted in part the defendants’ motion to dismiss. Three individual defendants were dismissed as the court found that “the change in posture since the Court’s entry of a preliminary injunction – namely, the expiration of the contract between the County and PCC – does affect the viability of some of Plaintiffs’ claims.”

Both parties have appealed the court’s ruling on the motion to dismiss, and the case remains pending. See: Rodriguez v. Providence Community Corrections, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:15-cv-01048.

Alec Karakatsanis has since left Equal Justice Under Law to form a new organization to challenge debtors’ prisons and systemic injustices in the U.S. criminal justice system, called the Civil Rights Corps.

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Related legal case

Rodriguez v. Providence Community Corrections