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VOL. 39 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 2, 2015

Lawsuit claims probation company extorts money from indigent

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NASHVILLE (AP) — A federal judge has issued a restraining order preventing two Rutherford County men from being arrested because they cannot pay court fines.

The Tennessean reports (http://tnne.ws/1OgHsoF) the men are two of seven plaintiffs accusing Providence Community Corrections of extorting money from probationers by threatening to send them to jail.

The company contracts with Rutherford County to supervise people on probation in misdemeanor and traffic cases. The lawsuit filed Thursday says it is illegal in Tennessee to revoke probation for someone who is unable to pay court costs, but Providence employees routinely threaten to do this and in some cases they follow through.

The suit says some plaintiffs have lost homes, jobs and cars in order to pay the company. Others have sold plasma, given up their disability checks or gone without food for their families.

The company responded with a written statement saying, "We stead fastly comply with the laws governing the probation system."

The suit claims the primary function of the company is not to provide meaningful supervision but simply to collect money. In addition to court costs, the company charges probationers $45 per month of supervision and $20 per drug test, the lawsuit says. Thus, the company has a financial incentive to keep people on probation and administer drug tests, regardless of whether they are necessary.

And employees don't advise probationers that they could have their fees waived due to indigence. Instead the employees place obstacles in the way of having fees waived or reduced, the lawsuit claims.

Cindy Rodriguez is one of the plaintiffs. According to the lawsuit, she is 51 years old and disabled with a teenage daughter. She is so poor that she cannot afford to fix a broken tooth. She has sacrificed necessities in order to pay $578 court costs after a shoplifting conviction in 2014.

After a year of prob ation she had paid almost the entire amount to Providence but the company had only applied $66 to her court costs, the lawsuit states. Rodriguez ended up in jail after Providence sought a warrant for her arrest because she couldn't pay, and her Providence-supervised probation was extended for another year.

Attorneys are seeking to make the case a class-action lawsuit that would include anyone placed on probation in Rutherford County with Providence as a potential plaintiff.

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