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Judge Rules Against TN County Probation System

NASHVILLE (CN) - A Tennessee county's private probation services company cannot jail misdemeanor probationers for nonpayment of court fees without assessing their ability to pay, a federal judge ruled.

Rutherford County, Tenn., gave control of its misdemeanor probation system to Pathways Community Corrections Inc., according to court records. Pathways previously did business as Providence Community Corrections.

A group of misdemeanor probationers filed a class action lawsuit against the county and Pathways on Oct. 1 of this year, claiming the company extorts money from people who don't have the ability to pay court costs and private fees.

The probationers specifically challenged Pathways' failure to account for indigence when the only alleged probation violation is nonpayment, as well as the company's use of secured money bonds to jail probationers pending revocation hearings.

"Plaintiffs submitted at least two arrest warrants from the Rutherford County Circuit Court that subjected probationers whose only violation was failure to pay to imprisonment on secured money bonds," according to a Dec. 17 ruling written by U.S. District Judge Kevin Sharp.

The judge noted that, "although defendants do not bother to take it into account, extreme poverty often produces the underlying probation violation and results in prolonged detention."

Two plaintiffs, Steven Gibbs and Fred Robinson, were previously granted temporary restraining orders to prevent their arrest. The parties agreed to convert the restraining order to an injunction, which prevented Rutherford County and Pathways from arresting Gibbs and Robinson solely for nonpayment of fees, according to court records.

Members of the proposed class argued that probationers should not be jailed, which they say is the equivalent of having their probation revoked, after they were arrested only for nonpayment. They say an inquiry into whether the nonpayment was willful should be conducted before they are jailed.

Sharp granted the probationers a class-wide preliminary injunction last week. The judge said "the use of secured money bonds has the undeniable effect of imprisoning indigent individuals where those with financial means who have committed the same or worse probation violations can purchase their freedom."

"Defendants deny release only to those too poor to post bond, meaning that one's freedom is conditioned upon one's financial resources," Sharp wrote. "The Constitution protects those in the criminal justice system from such perverse contingencies."

The judge found that the probationers proved that irreparable constitutional harm would likely occur without an injunction. He issued an order preventing Rutherford County and Pathways from jailing probationers under a secured money bond condition that would require payment for them to be released from custody.

The preliminary injunction order also mandates that the county and the company release any probationer from custody who is currently being held on the basis of a secured money bond.

"A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy never awarded as of right. But the injustice perpetrated here is just that: extraordinary," Sharp wrote in the 20-page ruling.

Thirteen inmates were released from Rutherford County jail as a result of Sharp's injunction order, according to a WKRN report.

Pathways said in a statement that it is disappointed in the ruling "but will continue to comply with all state and federal laws while reviewing our legal options."

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