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Tennessee Private Probation Firm Probed for Alleged Abuses

by Derek Gilna

Various misdemeanor probationers in Rutherford County, Tennessee have filed a federal lawsuit against Rutherford County, Pathways Community Corrections (PCC), previously known as Providence Community Corrections, and various probation officers, seeking injunctive relief and class action status to terminate what they term abusive practices in the administration of the county's probation program. At issue was the alleged practice of PCC of extoringt money from indigent defendants by threatening them with jail for non-payment.

PCC contracts with Rutherford County to handle supervisory tasks for people who are on probation for misdemeanor and traffic cases, charging an additional $45 to individuals per month of supervision. It also charges $20 per drug tests. People who are unable to pay these costs and fees often found their probation revoked when they were unable to pay what plaintiffs termed a "secured money bond."

Plaintiffs alleged that PCC applied most monies received from probationers to its inflated fees rather than the court costs that were the subject of the original proceedings, perpetuating the cycle of indebtedness.

According to the district court judge, "Plaintiffs argue that when Defendants determine a secured money bond would be the best method to ensure the probationer's attendance at his or her eventual revocation hearing, they must account for indigency when setting the amount of the bond. Plaintiffs also do not argue that nonpayment does not qualify as a probation violation...they argue that where nonpayment is the only violation alleged the probationer cannot be jail after arrest-the function equivalent of probation revocation-without an inquiry into whether the non-payment was willful."

Judge Kevin Sharp then ordered Rutherford County to release prisoners held on certain violation of probation charges: "The Rutherford County Sheriff.. (shall) release from custody any PCC, Inc. probationer who is currently in custody solely on the basis of a PCC, Inc. violation of probation warrant and is being held pending revocation of probation proceedings on the basis of" either non-payment of fees only or a preset, secured-money bond.

PCC has also attracted the attention of the Tennessee state agency that regulates correctional practices in the state, launching an investigation that can take from 30 to 90 days to complete. The Tennessee Commerce Department and the Private Probation Services Council, who licenses firms such as PCC, has the power to issue penalties if abuses are substantiated, ranging from fines to license revocation.

Nationwide, prisoner rights advocates have taken note of other private probation firms who promise to take over probation administration for cash-strapped counties, promising financial benefits to those units of government, but instead generating profits from abusive practices.