Rutherford County really skated on a $14.3 million probation services lawsuit settlement.
It’s not often you can hire someone to run a probation scam for years, then get paid for it. Apparently, County Attorney Josh McCreary and County Mayor Ernest Burgess did a great job pleading their case.
As it turns out, Providence Community Correction, now owned by California-based Molina Healthcare, which is out of the probation business, will pay $14 million in the class-action lawsuit and send $350,000 to Rutherford County. In turn, the county must put $300,000 into a settlement fund for thousands of people victimized by the probation profiteering, which means it has $50,000 left over—maybe for a big party.
The lawsuit contended indigent probationers were caught in a system designed to “extract” as much money from them as possible “through a pattern of illegal and shocking behavior,” often keeping them on probation for years and paying thousands of dollars in fines and fees, even after they paid the initial costs.
Washington, D.C.-based Equal Justice Under Law filed the lawsuit in late 2015, but attorney Alec Karakatsanis split from that firm and carried the case to completion with Civil Rights Corps.
How they’re going to find all the people who got ripped off is another question. Victims are supposed to be notified by mail, but anyone who’s been on and off probation for the past six or seven years has probably held about 10 different addresses by now, including 940 New Salem Hwy. Good luck.
When this privatized probation came about, Rutherford County didn’t pay PCC or the former company. Instead, the vendor made its money off probationers’ fees. Consequently, it had a built-in reason to keep people on probation or to make them keep coming back to the office over and over and over and paying fee after fee after fee.
Granted, a lot of the people who found themselves in this trap weren’t exactly Sunday school teachers. But the idea behind probation is to keep people out of jail and put them back on the road to a productive life, not to keep piling on fees, having their probation violated, drug-testing them and keeping them in the system. (Word has it the new county probation services department is doing better.)
Someone said, well, they need to quit smoking pot, then they won’t test positive. But if you’re $3,000 in the hole, can’t drive because your license is suspended and can’t find anything but a minimum-wage job flipping burgers, what are you gonna do? Probably smoke a joint. At least it’ll make your music sound better for a couple of hours every night.
Driving on Suspended
One of Rutherford County’s biggest offenses for probation violation is driving on a suspended license. So guess what?
Rutherford County, the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, Circuit Court Clerk Melissa Harrell and several Wilson County entities find themselves the defendants in a class-action lawsuit very similar to the one Rutherford County just settled.
Filed in mid-September by four firms or entities, including Civil Rights Corps, this one contends the state and Rutherford County, etc., are trapping people in a “vicious cycle” of traffic debt because they’re too poor to pay the initial fines. They get caught speeding and driving without a license, can’t afford the lump-sum ticket and court costs, get their license suspended by the state, then the fines and fees start to pile up—often to $1,000 or more.
They can’t drive to work, so their best bet is to catch a ride to Smyrna or La Vergne, where they’ll make about $8 an hour. When that breaks down, they’ll try to drive again—maybe to a better-paying job—get caught driving on a suspended license again and the whole thing starts anew.
This one begins at the top and trickles down, because the state Legislature decided to make those bums at the bottom of the heap pay for Tennessee’s justice system, one in which a lot of Joe Schmoes are needed to make sure everyone gets a cut to keep their fiefdoms running.
When this self-perpetuating system fails to generate enough revenue, the government tacks on some more fees, which generally leads to more pot smoking among the poor and huddled masses. Then they get tired of weed and graduate to stuff like heroin and Fentanyl, which kills them dead as a doornail. No wonder we have an opioid epidemic in Tennessee among people who have no hope for a better life.
A few people in the Tennessee General Assembly are paying attention. Unfortunately, none of them represent Rutherford County. Most of them are from Memphis, and they’re trying to take the hammer and sickle out of the hands of the government and give people a fighting chance.
Rep. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis passed legislation this year reducing the expungement fee for felonies, and she’s hoping to do the same misdemeanor expungement fees, which are currently at $450. That means if you have a conviction for—gasp—underage alcohol consumption, you have to pay $450 to have it erased from your record. Otherwise, you’ve got a bad mark on your report card, which is a red flag for employers.
Lowering the fee will be difficult because some of it goes to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and to other sectors of our criminal justice system. They don’t want to lose that money, because they need the personnel to keep fighting all of those pot smokers, beer drinkers and hell raisers. But a man’s got to do something for a living. Unfortunately, dyin’ ain’t much of a living, and it’s the poor people who are getting killed.
Happier Days Coming?
On a positive note, county government recently opened a $6.7 million parking garage downtown on the site of the old Daily News Journal building, which should have been bulldozed about 20 years ago instead of two years ago. It was an embarrassment, as is the way the newspaper’s parent company operates (pardon the digression).
Anyway, the garage offers nearly 400 spaces. It’s open and light and has a nice safe feeling, especially compared to the Civic Plaza garage underneath Murfreesboro City Hall. Hide the women and children there, please.
Of course, when the county’s new judicial building opens in May 2018, all of those parking spaces will disappear. Why? Because we have one of the biggest court dockets in the state.
Between all of those underage drinkers, suspended license drivers and minor drug possession offenders, the court system is clogged worse than the toilet at your family reunion.
One recent Thursday morning, the current Judicial Building was so crowded people were asking me why I didn’t call the fire department, an apparent reference to the need for the fire marshal to shut it down.
My response: “Could no one here pick up the phone and call?”
On another Friday in mid-summer, Judge David Bragg’s Circuit Court was so full you couldn’t squeeze another person into the room. You could open the door, but that was it. Someone told me they scheduled two dockets that day. Only God knows why.
Other times, the place is like a morgue. Nothing but the souls of old, burned-out criminals are haunting the place.
It makes you wonder if we really need the judicial building under construction two blocks north or if someone doesn’t know how to put pen to paper.
Here’s looking forward, though, to May 1 when all of our problems will be solved by the new judicial complex—all $73 million for the whole shebang.
Sorry if that didn’t sound too positive. But when you get my age it’s easy to fall into the trap of becoming a “nattering nabob of negativity.”