NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) - A class action accuses a private probation company of bilking and extorting probationers who must pay for its services. The class claims that Providence Community Corrections, which operates in 45 states, triples the probation term of its average "client" so it can milk monthly supervision fees from them, charges far more in fees than the courts or service providers do, and does it all without an agency to regulate it, or to whom probationers can complain. And the class notes that there are "obvious and inherent problems associated with judges owning an interest in private probation companies."
Misty Dawn Bell sued Providence in Davidson County Chancery Court, alleging violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the Consumer Protection Act. She seeks punitive damages for the class.
Bell claims that Providence's unjustified supervision fees and other costs have extended her probation for more than a year because she could not afford the costs. She says she is not the only probationer affected by Providence's behavior.
"Ms. Bell alleges that the probation of persons initially placed on probation for 11 months and 29 days routinely lasts in excess of three (3) years as a result of the wrongful conduct of PCC ... the probation of one individual has lasted in excess of eight (8) years," the complaint states.
Bell claims that Providence overcharges probationers, extorts money from them, intimidates them into signing unfair contracts, adulterates urine samples to make it look like they used drugs and sexually harasses and sexually assaults them.
Armed sheriff's deputies act as Providence agents, adding to the intimidation and harassment, Bell says, and "PCC and judges incarcerate probationers based on their inability to pay."
Bell claims this system has been recognized as corrupt for years.
"At least as far back as 2003, the existence of opportunities for abuse of individuals by private probation companies has been recognized in this state," according to the complaint. "In a meeting of the Select Oversight Committee on Corrections held in December 2003, Judge Chris Craft, then Criminal Court Judge of Division VIII of the Shelby County Courts, noted that the Tennessee Legislature had passed a statute allowing private probation companies in the state of Tennessee, and that prior thereto, all probation had either been done by the state or by local municipalities. ... Judge Craft noted that he was seeing a lot of what he felt was corruption and a lot of injustice resulting from the operation of private probation companies. Judge Craft noted the lack of requirements regarding owners and employees of private probation companies, in terms of their criminal records; i.e., the fact that persons with convictions for rape, forgery, embezzlement, drug convictions, armed robbery, etc. are able to serve as monitors of persons placed on probation. Judge Craft noted the conflict of interest, and opportunities for abuse based on the for-profit status of the private probation companies. Judge Craft noted ... that some private probation companies were 'charging fees that frankly aren't justified,' such as charging $35 per month for a monthly drug screen when the drug test costs them $15, and/or charging substantially more for a retest without violating the person in the event of a failed drug test. Judge Craft also noted abuses such as charging individuals excessive amounts for the privilege of not reporting. Judge Craft noted ... that some of the private probation companies 'we really suspect of doing things improperly with the probationers.' Judge Craft anticipated, as stated on page 6 [of the committee report], that 'We're going to find people that are paying supervision fees that aren't reported.' Judge Craft noted, as stated on page 9, that the sole reason for the private process companies existence being to generate money and probationers are the sole source of revenue, provides greater likelihood of persons bribing and/or extorting money from probationers. Judge Craft noted, as stated on page 10, the obvious and inherent problems associated with judges owning an interest in private probation companies."
Two years later, in another meeting of the Select Oversight Committee on Corrections, "Judge Craft noted some companies were charging as much as $300 for drug screens, that there was no regulatory agency to which victims of the companies could report violations, and that audits should and would be conducted on the private probation companies. Judge Craft further spoke of anger of the judges as it related to their private probation companies, stating, 'The judges will be angry with us - they are protecting their own ... a legislator has already contacted us ... and wanting us to delay the process ... we have received notes from several (private probation) companies saying they don't have to be regulated. Judge Craft refers to defendants sent to the private probation companies as 'money-making machines' for companies that offer no services. Judge Craft estimate that this designation applied to 30,000 to 40,000 people. Judge Craft also discussed the opportunities for judicial misconduct in conjunction with private probation companies while Jackson noted that 'for more than seven years the SOCC had been in receipt of reliable presentations of corruption within the system and we just sort of accept it.'" (Ellipses and parentheses in complaint. "Jackson" is not further identified.)
Suing for the class, Bell says, "Nothing, however, has been done to address the abusive practices of PCC as detailed herein."
She claims, inter alia, that "PCC engages in intentional, willful, and reckless conduct ... in complete disregard of the applicable law.
"PCC isolates those placed on probation, using intimidation and threats to coerce signatures on contracts between the persons on probation and PCC. ...
"PCC adulterates urine samples and/or otherwise causes or reports positive drug tests regarding persons that have not used drugs.
"PCC extorts monies in excess of the fees authorized by applicable law and/or contracts. ...
"(E)mployees and/or agents of PCC engage in sexual harassment and sexual assault.
"PCC uses threats and intimidation to force probationers to drop out of school, and/or take other actions as necessary to pay the excess fees that are being demanded."
Bell claims Providence's violation began immediately: "PCC demanded a supervision fee payment one week after Ms. Bell had been placed on probation, of $51 even though the supervision fee was $45 per month, and even though PCC was expressly prohibited from requiring any supervision fees to be paid in advance."
Bell sums it up: "The intent and effect of PCC's wrongful conduct is to misrepresent the actual amount owed by probationers, to collect amounts in excess of amounts PCC is lawfully authorized to collect, to extend the probation period of probationers for as long as possible, during which time the probationer is required to pay PCC $45 per month. ... PCC engages in virtually each of the acts of injustice regarding which Judge Craft had voiced concerns in 2003."
The class is represented by Cyrus Booker and Maria Hall of the Booker Legal Group in Nashville.
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