Probationers set to collect in $14.3 million class-action suit

FILE PHOTO

Tens of thousands of former probationers who could be eligible for awards through a class-action lawsuit settlement with Rutherford County and Providence Community Corrections have been mailed forms to claim their money.

The final step in the case is to make sure as many people as possible can obtain the money they’re entitled to receive through a federal judge’s preliminary approval of the $14.3 million settlement, according to Alec Karakatsanis, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps who brought the lawsuit.

“This settlement is an important one not only because it will pay a fund of $14.3 million to some of Rutherford County’s poorest people whose constitutional rights were violated, but also because it ensures that the legal system will protect their rights going forward,” Karakatsanis said.

Anyone required to pay fines, fees or costs stemming from a misdemeanor or traffic case in Rutherford County from Oct. 1, 2011 to Oct. 5, 2017 and was under the supervision of PCC or Rutherford County’s probation department could be a member of the settlement class, according to the website www.pccrutherfordsettlement.com. Anyone with questions also can call (888) 805-9210.

People who owed or paid money to PCC could be eligible to receive cash awards from a settlement fund based on the amount they paid or owed to PCC and the length of time they were on probation, according to the web site.

The site enables people to click on a claim form to seek payment from the fund, a step they must take by April 27, 2018. A settlement administrator will determine the amount they will receive based on the information they provide. Those who file claims by that date will give up their right to be part of another lawsuit arbitration or proceeding against the defendants for the same legal claims resolved this settlement.

People also could remain in the settlement but object to its terms by writing the court and explaining their dissatisfactions by April 27. In addition, people could go to a fairness hearing June 25 and ask to speak to the court about the settlement’s fairness.

A group of residents filed the federal class-action lawsuit in October 2015 contending they were the “victims of an extortion scheme” in which the county and PCC “conspired to extract as much money as possible from misdemeanor probationers through a pattern of illegal and shocking behavior.”

Rutherford County began contracting with PCC several years ago because it had a large number of outstanding fees it couldn’t collect from people convicted of misdemeanors in General Sessions Court.

But when PCC took over Rutherford County’s probation system, rather than receiving a fee from the county, it earned millions in profits annually by requiring payments from low-income people under its supervision. Often this meant having probationers sent to jail because they couldn’t afford to pay its private fees and trapping them in a cycle of debt, endless probation extensions and more jail time, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said.

PCC and Rutherford County admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement in the lawsuit.

“There are some things we’re going to have to change going forward and how we manage misdemeanors coming through the court system, etc.,” Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess said after the lawsuit settlement.

Burgess also said the county made substantial progress in serving probationers differently through its government-run department than PCC did. Rutherford County set up its own probation service in April 2016 after PCC was acquired by a California-based company and dropped probation services.

Washington, D.C.-based Equal Justice Under Law filed the lawsuit Oct. 1, 2015, and the law firm Baker Donelson filed a landmark RICO and constitutional class action lawsuit, Rodriguez v. Providence, in federal court in Nashville. Karakatsanis set up Civil Rights Corps and continued handling the case after a split with Equal Justice.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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