August 24, 2017

Civil Rights Advocates Condemn the Use of Private Probation Company that Perpetuates Cycle of Incarceration and Discrimination Harming Racial Minorities

3 min

Washington, D.C. (August 24, 2017) - The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers' Committee) and Venable LLP this week moved to file an amicus curiae, "friend of the court," brief in the Eastern District Court of Arkansas in the case of Justice Network v. Craighead County, et al. This case highlights the systemic problems inherent in the use of a for-profit company to manage peoples' lives through the criminal justice system.

"The prevalence of for-profit companies in the criminal justice system continues to entrap poor people, too many of whom are African American or minority, in a cycle of escalating debt and unnecessary incarceration," said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers' Committee. "The Justice Network put profit before people and, as a result, ran its business with utter disregard for the well-being or constitutional rights of the communities most impacted by its questionable business practices. The company's claims in this case threaten he ability of judges to ensure equal justice and due process in their courtrooms, and to consequently protect the civil rights of minorities and indigent defendants in Craighead County."

This case also marks an unusual turn in which the private probation company is suing two Craighead County judges, Tommy Fowler and David Boling, who ended the use of the company's services in Craighead County.

From 1997 until February 2017, the Justice Network served as the sole provider of misdemeanor probation supervision in Craighead County. The company collected upwards of $500,000 a year off the backs of largely poor and disproportionately minority Arkansans in Craighead County. The company's practice of seeking warrants for the arrest of individuals on probation for failure to pay and/or attend a class or assignment scheduled by the private company had a harmful effect, pushing thousands of people in Craighead into cycles of debt, fear, poverty, and incarceration.

"Contrary to the Justice Network's meritless claims, Judges Bowling and Fowler did not only what the law allowed, but what it required. They refused to continue a decades-old unconstitutional practice that wrongfully entrapped far too many Craighead County residents in a cycle of debt, poverty, and incarceration," said Joseph D. Dell'Armi of Venable LLP. "We encourage other state judges presiding over similarly unconstitutional probation regimes to follow their lead."

In its amicus brief, the Lawyers' Committee and co counsel state that Judges Fowler and Boling were justified in ending the use of the company's services in the county's probation system on both law and policy grounds.

The money-making scheme pursued by The Justice Network undermined faith in the criminal justice system and caused widespread harm by systematically perpetuating unfair and unequal treatment of poor Arkansans. On just one day in August 2016, more than 80 percent of individuals who appeared before Judge Boling in court were jailed solely on warrants issued for failure to pay—not because of any criminal wrongdoing. The spiraling debt and hopelessness of thousands of County residents, described by some as "a maze with no exit," more than justifies the Judges' decisions to end their courts' relationship with the company and institute an "Amnesty Program" to forgive fees owed by the probationers to the company.

To read the full amicus brief, click here.

About the Lawyers' Committee:

The Lawyers' Committee, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. Now in its 54th year, the Lawyers' Committee is continuing its quest "Move America Toward Justice." The principal mission of the Lawyers' Committee is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and voting rights.