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A Smith County man has filed suit against the county and its former private probation subcontractor, alleging they conspired to operate an illegal extortion scheme designed to keep indigent residents convicted of misdemeanor offenses on extended probation — often getting deep into debt — because they were unable to pay their probation fees.
After Vernon Dale Hale pled guilty to simple possession in October 2019, he was placed on probation for 11 months and 29 days under the supervision of Smith County Misdemeanor Probation, a private for-profit company that supervised misdemeanor probation for the county beginning in 1999. Hale was required to make weekly in-person appearances before the company’s probation officer, which cost him his job replacing lights on skyscrapers in New York City, the suit said.
Unemployed and unable to afford his weekly $10 probation fees along with the costs of random drug tests, Hale was threatened with arrest in August 2020. Faced with the prospect of incarceration, Hale signed a probation amendment extending his probation for an additional 11 months and 29 days, a deal struck outside of court and without a judge’s order, the lawsuit said.
Hale was released early from probation in 2021 the day after the County was served with two separate federal lawsuit making similar allegations. His is now the third lawsuit to be filed against Smith County and Smith County Misdemeanor Probation.
Hale’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. Middle District of Tennessee on Monday, claims the county and its probation contractor engaged in a pattern of racketeering. It seeks unspecified amount in damages.
Robin Moore, Hales’ attorney, declined comment Tuesday, citing federal court rules. A message left with Smith County officials went unreturned. Efforts to reach Smith County Misdemeanor Probation were also unsuccessful. Smith County officials ceased using Smith County Misdemeanor Probation in 2021. The county has since created its own probation department.
Tennessee counties’ use of private probation companies has drawn increasing scrutiny in recent years. In 2018 Human Rights Watch released an investigation that found lax regulation and oversight of these for-profit companies led to human rights abuses that disproportionately impacted poor people. The same year, an audit by the Tennessee Comptroller found that the state’s oversight agency, the Private Probation Services Council, “did not adequately oversee private probation entities, putting probationers at risk.”
Officials in Giles County last year entered into a $2 million settlement over their use of private probation companies that profited from keeping probationers locked in an unending cycles. When people could not afford the fees, they faced re-arrest on probation violation grounds that often came with the requirement to post even more money for bail to secure release. They also faced extended probation sentences or additional conditions, raising their debts even more. Probationers were routinely threatened with jail time if they could not pay. People sold their possessions, went without medications, skipped rent and lost their homes.
Rutherford County entered into a $14 million settlement after a class action lawsuit was brought with similar claims against private probation companies it hired.
Kevin Walters, spokesman for the Department of Labor and Workforce Development noted after publication of this story that the state’s Private Probation Services Council has, since the Comptroller’s 2018, instituted operation improvements in its oversight role over private probation companies
The for-profit probation companies in Smith, Giles, Rutherford and other Tennessee counties share a similar business model. They enter into contracts, often with cash-strapped counties, to take on misdemeanor probation services at no cost to the county. They perform drug testing and require regular monitoring of probationers and coordinate court mandated classes for treatment — the cost of which is shouldered entirely by probationers.
The companies typically agree to collect court costs of probationers, further relieving counties of administrative and collection responsibilities.
The companies are solely funded by the fees and charges they pass onto probationers, incentivizing the practice of charging additional fees and extending probation time.
For Hale, his probation status subjected him to multiple random searches. Between October 2019 and February 2020, Hale, his vehicle and his home were searched between 50 and 60 times, the lawsuit claims. Hale’s daughter, a minor, was also searched multiple times, the lawsuit said. After he lost his job, Hale told his probation officer he could not afford to make his weekly $10 payments. He was threatened with jail.
He was also subject to multiple drug tests, whose costs he was responsible for paying, “for the purpose of generating financial profit for the companies as well as relinquishing his federal and state rights through onerous and unlawful probation conditions,” the lawsuit said.
Under Tennessee law, nonpayment of fees must be willful and indigent probationers cannot be subject to a revokation of their probation due to nonpayment alone. Hale was found indigent by a judge in February 2020.
Clarification: This story has been updated to note the state’s Private Probation Services Council has instituted operational improvements since a critical audit was released by the Tennessee Comptroller in 2018.
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