A new lawsuit charges that private probation company in Tennessee is violating racketeering laws by jailing impoverished people who fail to pay court fines for traffic violations and misdemeanor offenses, and by refusing to waive fees for the indigent, the New York Times reports. Seven probationers, many of them sick or disabled and living on as little as $129 a month in food stamps, say they lost housing, jobs and cars, sold their blood plasma and went without food after threats by the company that they would be jailed if they did not pay.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Nashville, alleges that Rutherford County and the company, Providence Community Corrections are violating racketeering laws by extorting money through “the wrongful use of fear.” The company said: “Providence Community Corrections' mission is to encourage people to complete their probation successfully per the terms set by the courts … In each of the states we serve, we steadfastly comply with the laws governing the probation system.” As private probation has become widespread, so have lawsuits alleging abuses. Companies offer local governments the promise of collecting more of their outstanding court fees and fines. Civil rights advocates say that such debts often go unpaid because of the debtors' poverty and that aggressive efforts to collect the money under threat of incarceration impose a strain on vulnerable people. In Alabama and Georgia, lawsuits have curbed the use of private probation companies.