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Debtors’ Prison Project

Public Justice’s Debtors’ Prison Project (“DPP”) is a strategic litigation project that combats the criminalization of poverty. Our work aims to counter the incentives for governments and private companies to shift the costs of the criminal legal system onto those least able to pay: indigent criminal defendants, their families, and their communities. We fight for the rights of individuals facing jail because they can’t pay fines and fees and against the abusive imposition, enforcement, and collection of fines and fees.

Recent Highlights

  • We filed a class action lawsuit against the County and City of Los Angeles, LA Sheriff’s Department, LA Sherriff, LA Police Department, and LAPD Chief, challenging the Los Angeles County’s bail schedule policy.

  • We won a landmark victory against a probation company and the City of Montgomery on behalf of probationers forced to “sit out” their fines in jail if they could not buy their freedom.

  • We filed a first-of-its-kind consumer protection lawsuit against a debt collector that threatens defendants with jail if they fail to reimburse the state for the cost of their appointed counsel.

  • We launched a strategic initiative to marshal the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause to challenge the exorbitant fines imposed on indigent defendants. And in our first Excessive Fines Clause argument, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously agreed with our amicus brief that the Excessive Fines Clause requires consideration of a defendant’s ability to pay, that impoundment and towing fees can constitute a “fine” subject to the Clause’s protections, and that a $500 fine imposed on a homeless man was unconstitutional.

  • We won a Fifth Circuit decision holding that a city and the private prison with which it contracted can be held responsible for the beating death of a pretrial detainee—and setting important precedent that for-profit corporations are not immune from punitive damages and that their employees do not have qualified immunity from liability for constitutional violations.

Our Work

Fighting the Use of Jail to Collect Criminal Legal Debt

Carter v. City of Montgomery and Judicial Correction Services (U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama; U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit)

Carter is a putative class action brought on behalf of low-income municipal court defendants in Montgomery who were jailed when they could not pay debt arising from minor misdemeanors and traffic violations. Montgomery contracted with for-profit probation company Judicial Correction Services (JCS) to collect debt. JCS’s system was “offender-funded,” meaning the company didn’t charge the City a penny for its debt-collection services. Instead, the Montgomery Municipal Court JCS placing traffic debtors on supervised “probation” with JCS, and probationers were ordered to pay $40 every month in probation fees on top of their underlying fines. It was a lucrative business model: JCS took in over $15 million in fees in Montgomery alone—and almost $60 million statewide before it was forced out of Alabama. And when probationers could no longer afford to pay, JCS petitioned the court to revoke their probation and have them arrested, and the court “commuted” their fines to days in jail—without an ability-to-pay determination in violation of their Due Process and Sixth Amendment rights. Our case seeks to hold the City, JCS, and a contract public defender responsible for these alleged violations of our clients’ constitutional and state-law rights.

In July 2020, the district court denied the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. We are currently working to certify the classes and have appealed the trial court’s order denying our motion for class certification to the Eleventh Circuit. The Carter appeal has been consolidated with the appeal in a sister case, McCullough v. City of Montgomery.

Co-counsel: Evans Law Firm (Birmingham, AL) and Terrell Marshall Law Group (Seattle, WA).

Briefs and documents:

Graff v. Aberdeen (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit)

Graff is a pending federal putative class action targeting the use of failure-to-pay warrants and jail time by a private debt collector and Oklahoma district attorneys to extract payments from indigent debtors. Georgetown Law School’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) is counsel for the plaintiffs. The District of Oklahoma dismissed the case on federal abstention grounds, and the plaintiffs appealed to the Tenth Circuit.

We partnered with Oklahoma Policy Institute (OPI) to file an amicus brief that (1) places the Aberdeen scheme in context by examining the steep rise in fines and fees in recent years, harsh consequences for debtors, the futility of threatening and jailing people who cannot pay, and available alternatives to this approach; and (2) explains how the district court failed to consider federal constitutional requirements in its discussion of how arrest for nonpayment and ability-to-pay determinations work under state law and misapplied federal precedent on abstention doctrines. The brief draws on OPI’s years-long work analyzing the administration of court fines and fees and its database compiling millions of court records to identify trends in debt and collection.

Counsel for plaintiffs: Georgetown Law School’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP)

Briefs and documents:

Fighting the Imposition of Excessive and Abusive Criminal Fines and Fees

Civil Assessments (various counties, California)

In partnership with the ACLU of Southern California, the Western Center for Law and Poverty, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and other members of California’s Debt-Free Justice Coalition, we successfully fought the practice of automatically imposing a $300 “civil assessment” on traffic court and criminal court defendants who either do not pay their fine on time or do not appear in court to defend themselves. In particular, we sent demand letters and follow-up advocacy letters to superior courts in multiple counties describing how their imposition of civil assessments violated California law, due process and equal protection provisions of the state and federal constitutions, and constitutional prohibitions on self-interested actors imposing financial penalties. We also court watched, collected records from courts through public records requests and identified several plaintiffs for the case we were building.

As these efforts were underway, members of the coalition working on the legislative side were able to secure the governor’s commitment to dropping the civil assessment penalty from $300 to $100, but not ending it outright. With the governor’s support, a bill (AB 199) was passed capping civil assessments at $100, ending direct financial incentives courts had to collect civil assessments, and waiving all outstanding civil assessment debt, which totaled at least $400M and possibly as high as twice that figure (efforts are underway to get a more precise figure). We are now continuing to work with our coalition partners to track the implementation of AB 199, and our hope is to convince courts to stop imposing civil assessments altogether.

Documents:

Letter on behalf of Public Justice, ACLU of Southern California, Western Center on Law and Poverty, and Social Justice Legal Foundation to Kern County Superior Court urging the court to stop practice of automatically imposing $300 civil assessments without individualized evaluation and adequate notice (April 28, 2022)

State of Oregon v. Dunham (Oregon Court of Appeals)

We represent an Oregon father, Ken Dunham, who owes more than $3,000 in fines and fees that were imposed for a few minor crimes committed over a decade ago while he was struggling with mental illness and drug addiction. Ken is unable to pay this outstanding debt because he cannot find employment due to his disability and criminal record: the job opportunities that would accommodate his disability are out of reach because of his criminal record. Expungement of his criminal record would drastically improve his chances of getting a job. But, like a lot of individuals who have encountered the criminal legal system, Ken is not eligible for expungement until he has paid off all his debt. He’s trapped, unable to get a job that will accommodate his disability until his record is expunged and unable to expunge his record until he earns the money to pay off his court debt. Oregon law permits a defendant to petition a court to reduce or waive outstanding court debt if the defendant is not in contempt—that is, has not willfully refused to pay. So, with our help, Ken petitioned the court in February 2022 to reduce or waive his outstanding debt, arguing that if his debt was not waived, it would likely constitute an unconstitutional fine in violation of the Excessive Fines Clause. The court summarily denied the petition from the bench, and we appealed the decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals. We are arguing that the court violated Oregon statutory law and the state and federal Excessive Fines Clauses in failing to consider his financial circumstances. Our hope is not only to help Ken move on from his criminal history, but to make good law that will benefit others in Oregon fighting against unpayable and unfair fines fees.

Co-counsel: Oregon Metropolitan Public Defender’s Community Law Division; Oregon Law Center

Briefs and documents:

Seattle v. Long (Washington Supreme Court)

Seattle resident Steven Long was living in his pick-up truck after being evicted from his home. The city towed and impounded his vehicle after it was parked in an abandoned gravel lot for over 72 hours and required Steven to pay over $500 in impound fees to recover the truck. Steven argued that this fine violated the Excessive Fines Clause, but the state court of appeals upheld the fine, concluding that it was not excessive because it went toward repaying the city for towing costs and because the city council had specifically authorized the fine. When the case was appealed to the state high court, we filed an amicus brief in support of Steven, joined by the Georgetown Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, and the Rutherford Institute.

In August 2021, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously reversed the lower court’s decision. The court concluded that, in assessing whether a fine is unconstitutionally excessive, courts must consider the individual circumstances of the person being fined and that the appellate court had erred in failing to do so. Applying that standard to Steven Long’s case, the court held that the fine violated the Excessive Fines Clause.

The court cited to our brief to support several critical conclusions. First, the court recognized that when weighing the seriousness of a defendant’s conduct, courts must consider the actual circumstances of what happened. Here, the court recognized that Steven’s conduct lacked seriousness because even among traffic offenses, the violation was relatively minor. Second, the court recognized that a defendant’s individual circumstances must be considered when weighing the severity of the fine. Relying on sources cited in our brief—including figures indicating that Seattle residents need about $2,000 per month to meet basic needs and studies showing that poor offenders suffer additional financial consequences as a result of a fine—the court concluded that the $500 fine was too extremely severe when applied to Steven. The Washington Supreme Court’s decision correctly recognizes the crucial role that the Excessive Fines Clause serves as a protection against unjust and unfair fines. This right to be free from excessive fines is perhaps more important now than ever, as state and local governments increasingly shift the costs of the criminal legal system onto those who pass through their courts.

Briefs and documents:

Johnson v. City of Grants Pass (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit)

Johnson (formerly Blake) was putative class action filed by the Oregon Law Center challenging attempts by the City of Grants Pass to use municipal fines to punish its unhoused residents for sleeping and resting outdoors, even though those people have no place else to go. The district court certified a class of involuntarily homeless residents and entered an injunction against the City, holding that the city’s policies violated two provisions of the Eighth Amendment: the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause and the Excessive Fines Clause. The City appealed, and DPP filed an amicus brief with the Ninth Circuit defending the lower court’s decision. Our brief argued that the lower court properly held that any fine imposed on unhoused individuals for conduct directly stemming from homelessness would violate the Excessive Fines Clause. In September 2022, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision on Punishments Clause grounds.

Briefs and documents:

  • Brief of Public Justice, ACLU of Northern California, ACLU of Southern California, ACLU of Oregon, Institute For Justice, National Center for Law and Economic Justice, and Rutherford Institute as Amici Curiae in Support of Plaintiffs-Appellees (June 8, 2021)
  • Ninth Circuit decision (September 8, 2022)

Fighting Abuses by Private Companies Collecting Criminal Legal Debt

Champagne v. Linebarger, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP (U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa)

We filed this lawsuit on behalf of two low-income Iowans who allegedly owed court debt for their public defender fees to the State of Iowa arising from misdemeanor cases. Our clients received letters from Linebarger threatening that if they did not pay immediately, their driver’s licenses could be revoked or they could be jailed—neither of which is permissible under state law. The letters also failed to disclose that Linebarger added a 25% collection fee to the principal debt or to itemize the debts owed. Our complaint alleged that Linebarger’s letters violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and Iowa state law, and that Linebarger’s efforts to collect a debt from one of the Plaintiffs that no court had ordered her to pay violated her constitutional due process rights. This lawsuit argued that debt owed for appointed counsel fees constitutes consumer debt, and that people who owe such debt are therefore protected from abusive collection practices under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The case settled in September 2021.

Co-counsel: Iowa Legal Aid (Des Moines, IA) and Terrell Marshall Law Group (Seattle, WA).

Briefs and documents:

Fighting to ensure private companies operating in the criminal justice and carceral spaces can be held accountable

Moore v. LaSalle Management Corp., LLC (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit)

We worked with Public Justice’s Access to Justice attorneys to assemble a team of appellate experts to handle this appeal behalf of the surviving family members of a pretrial detainee, Erie Moore, who died after he was assaulted and beaten by guards at a for-profit prison in Monroe, Louisiana.

Mr. Moore was arrested for disturbing the peace, a misdemeanor offense, and taken to a for-profit prison in Louisiana. A day later, after prison guards dropped him on his head, shackled him, beat him, and sprayed him with toxic chemicals, Mr. Moore was comatose. He never regained consciousness and died a month later. His family filed suit under § 1983 (the federal civil rights statute) and state tort law against the individual officers involved, the private prison facility and management company, and the City. The district court below granted summary judgment to the defendants on almost every claim. Ten different rulings, including several summary judgment rulings, were on appeal.

In a powerful decision, the Fifth Circuit reversed on just about every issue. The court held that a reasonable jury could find the prison’s employees caused Mr. Moore’s death and that they are not entitled to qualified immunity from liability. In addition, the court held that a reasonable jury could find the private prison corporations liable for implementing policies that caused Mr. Moore’s death.

Finally, closely following Public Justice’s briefing on the issue, the Fifth Circuit held that the private companies may be held liable for punitive damages under § 1983 and that they acted with such extreme disregard to Mr. Moore’s rights that a jury could award punitive damages. In reaching this decision, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s holding that punitive damages under § 1983 aren’t available against corporations as a matter of law. While the court did not reach the issue of whether private corporations can be vicariously liable for their employees’ civil rights violations, the court’s analysis on punitive damages signaled that it agreed with our reasoning on this point.

The defendants sought rehearing en banc, specifically urging the full court to overturn the panel’s ruling that private companies can be held liable for punitive damages in civil rights cases. In August 2022, the court denied that petition.

Co-counsel: Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP (Washington, DC); Nelson Cameron (Shreveport, LA); Howard University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic.

Briefs and documents:

Do you have an idea for a potential DPP case?

The Debtors’ Prison Project is now developing or seeking to develop cases in the following areas:

  • Constitutional litigation against public agencies and for-profit companies that use supervised probation and electronic monitoring to collect debt, especially where:
  • A financially interested company or public agency is acting as a “neutral” probation officer;
  • Only debtors who are unable to pay court debt are subjected to increased fees and infringements on liberty;
  • Debtors are arrested for failure to pay without a determination that nonpayment was willful;
  • Probation is revoked because probationers failed to meet conditions they probationers could not afford to complete; or
  • Inability to pay ankle bracelet installation fees or monthly monitoring fees results in pre-trial detainees being kept in jail while those who can buy their freedom are released.
  • Challenges to feed imposed for public defenders, in both adult criminal proceedings and juvenile delinquency or dependency proceedings.
  • Consumer protection lawsuits on behalf of low-income criminal defendants against debt collectors and other for-profit actors in the criminal punishment system.
  • Challenges to abusive fines and fees using the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause.
  • Challenges to fine and fees imposed on homeless people for life-sustaining activities such as sleeping outdoors or for poverty-related offenses such as expired vehicle registration—and the laws and ordinances mandating such charges.

If you have a case you would like us to consider, please email dpp@publicjustice.net or click the button below.

Our Team

Learn more about the Debtors’ Prison Project team of attorneys:

Leslie Bailey
Director, Debtors’ Prison Project

Jacquelyn Oesterblad,
Skadden Fellow

Brian Hardingham headshot

Brian Hardingham,
Debtors’ Prison Project Senior Attorney

Join Us

We’re currently seeking to hire a staff attorney with civil rights litigation and advocacy experience who will be dedicated to fighting the criminalization of poverty. Click here or the button below to view the full job description and apply.

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