A couple weeks back, the New York Times shed some light on a growing trend of private probation companies ramping up fees on indigents who violate misdemeanors, kicking off a process that sends these people to jail for owing money. Meanwhile the fees would get layered on top of one another. It’s a 21st-century form of debtor’s prison and it violates federal statutes against the practice as it shocks the conscience.
When viewed in a light most favorable to Defendants, their testimony concerning the City’s court system could reasonably be characterized as the operation of a debtors prison. The court notes that these generally fell into disfavor by the early 1800′s, though the practice appears to have remained common place in Harpersville. From a fair reading of the defendants’ testimony one might ascertain that a more apt description of the Harpersville Municipal Court practices is that of a judicially sanctioned extortion racket. Most distressing is that these abuses have been perpetrated by what is supposed to be a court of law. Disgraceful.
Defendants’ depositions present virtually undisputed evidence that criminal defendants appearing before the Harpersville Municipal Court have been subjected to repeated and ongoing violations of almost every safeguard afforded by the United States Constitution, the laws of the State of Alabama, and the Rules of Criminal Procedure. The admitted violations are so numerous as to defy a detailed chronicling in this short space.
This is a harsh ruling. Judge Harrington granted a preliminary injunction hearing to the plaintiff, a victims of the debtor’s prison, and ordered the mayor and every member of the Harpersville City Council to be present at the trial. The judge also said that the city could not incarcerate ANYONE in the county jail or corrections facility without written approval from him. Harrington called the scheme a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”
At least one public official still understands his responsibilities in Alabama.