Last Spring, a group of HLS students traveled to Tennessee to work with Equal Justice Under Law, a non-profit civil rights organization started by alumni Alec Karakatsanis ’08 and Phil Telfeyan ’08 with the help of a Public Service Venture Fund seed grant to challenge inequalities in the criminal justice system. The pair met during their first year of law school and both participated in Harvard Defenders, a clinical student practice organization, and the Criminal Justice Institute, HLS’s public defense clinic.
On October 1st, Equal Justice Under Law filed a Complaint against Rutherford County and the private company it contracts to collect court debts. The lawsuit, brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), the United States Constitution, and Tennessee law, alleges “an extortion scheme” aimed at extracting as much money from people who could not afford to pay their court fines. An important aspect of the problem, the complaint states, is a private company, acting as a “probation officer” to collect not only court debt but also fees and surcharges “through repeated and continuous threats to arrest, revoke, and imprison” those who can not pay.
Harvard Law students together with Equal Justice Under Law helped uncover the debt collecting practices while working on behalf of indigent defendants and their families in Tennessee over Spring Break 2015.
Karakatsanis said that HLS students observed some unusual things going on and began interviewing people outside the private probation company and reviewing documents. They ended up “discovering the shocking and illegal things alleged in the Complaint.”
For more details on this issue please read How to Fight Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons? Sue the Courts. article published by The Marshall Project.