May 02, 2018

Civil Rights Advocates File Brief in Support of Arkansas Judges' Effort to End Private Probation Company's Involvement with Local Criminal Justice System

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers' Committee) and Venable LLP this week filed an amicus curiae, "friend of the court," brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit concerning the matter of the Justice Network v. Craighead County, et al., a case highlighting the systemic problems inherent in the prevalence of for-profit companies within the criminal justice system.

The original District Court case marked an unusual turn in which the Justice Network, a private probation company, sued two Craighead County judges who ended use of the company's services in Craighead County, Arkansas. After losing in the lower court, the private probation company filed an appeal with the 8th Circuit. "The Justice Network's claims in this case threaten the 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, " said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers' Committee.

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. Judges Tommy Fowler and David Boling ended the use of the company's services in Craighead County and with it, the 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.

"The Justice Network has made millions of dollars off the practice of jailing poor people simply because they are too poor to pay their court-imposed fines. When Judges Fowler and Boling ended this practice in Craighead County, they did not only what the law allowed but what the Constitution required," says Joseph Dell'Armi of Venable LLP. "The Justice Network's suit against the judges is meritless, and the District Court was right to dismiss it."

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 and minority Arkansans by jailing people without any regard for their ability to pay court-imposed debt. 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.

According to Clarke, "Equality before the law cannot exist when people suffer harsher punishment simply because of their economic status. This phenomenon is particularly offensive when the private corrections industry exploits an unequal justice system to drive up their profit margins."

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.