Karen McNeil was arrested in 2015 for the misdemeanor offense of driving on a revoked license in Giles County, Tennessee. What happened next nearly broke her.
Sentenced to four months of probation under the supervision of a private, for-profit company, McNeil's life soon revolved around the demands of her probation officer.
Charged fees she could not afford, McNeil was threatened with re-arrest if she did not pay. She lost her home after paying fees instead of rent. Then she sold even the tent she was living in. McNeil relies solely on disability payments and food stamps for income. The officer insisted on in-person check-ins. McNeil often had to walk the 3 miles from her home to the probation office.
When she missed monthly payments, her probation officer had her rearrested. Convicted of violating probation, she was sentenced to more months of probation — a cycle that was on repeat. McNeil was also subject to repeated random drug testing, often in an open bathroom in the presence of a male probation officer. Each drug test came with a price tag that McNeil was also expected to pay.
The four months of probation stretched to more than two years.
"I never thought I'd ever be off it," said McNeil, who is now 56. She cried at times as she recalled the experience. "Every time I was supposed to be off, they'd find something to violate me. It was something I'll never forget.
"It hurt me, my mind, the rest of my life because of the humiliation I went through, the shame. People would see me walking to probation on my oxygen. What really bothered me was having male officers when I got drug tested."
Officials in Giles County, southwest of Nashville, have now agreed to end the use of private probation companies as part of a $2 million settlement over claims in a 2017 lawsuit that their tactics amounted to an "illegal extortion scheme."
The class-action lawsuit, with McNeil named as one of the plaintiffs, said the two companies operating in the county "transformed the county's misdemeanor probation system into a machine for generating their own profit on the backs of Giles County's most impoverished residents."
When people could not afford the fees, they faced re-arrest for probation violations that often came with the requirement to post even more money for bail to secure release. They also faced extended probation sentences or additional conditions, raising their debts even more. Probationers were routinely threatened with jail time if they could not pay. People sold their possessions, went without medications, skipped rent and — like McNeil — became homeless.
The 18-page agreement between Giles County and attorneys with Civil Rights Corps —representing about 4,000 county residents who were subject to the misdemeanor probation system — still needs approval from the federal judge in the case, which is expected.
Once approved, the agreement waives all debt incurred by Giles County residents for misdemeanor probation and requires the county to immediately halt enforcing any outstanding warrants for misdemeanor probation violations.
It also requires the county to stop drug testing misdemeanor offenders not charged with drug offenses.
It requires any misdemeanor probation sentence to include an evaluation of an individual's ability to pay fees and fines. The county can no longer keep people on supervised probation solely due to their inability to pay.
And the agreement prohibits Giles County from running its own probation department funded solely on user fees from people on probation.
The agreement "is a recognition that the whole system was poisoned by these probation practices," said Elizabeth Rossi, senior attorney with Civil Rights Corps, which brought the suit.
An attorney for Giles County could not be reached for comment.
While the suit ends the reign of private probation companies in Giles County, 25 companies continue to supervise misdemeanor probationers in 19 other Tennessee counties, according to the Department of Commerce & Insurance, which licenses the companies.
A lawsuit in Rutherford County, also brought by Civil Rights Corps, resulted in a $14 million settlement and a requirement that the county cease using private probation companies in 2018.
The for-profit probation companies in Giles, Rutherford and other Tennessee counties share a similar business model. They enter into contracts, often with cash-strapped counties, to take on misdemeanor probation services at no cost to the county. They perform drug testing, require regular monitoring of probationers and coordinate court-mandated classes for treatment — the cost of which is shouldered entirely by probationers.
The companies typically agree to collect court costs of probationers, further relieving counties of administrative and collection responsibilities.
The companies are solely funded by the fees and charges they pass onto probationers, incentivizing the practice of charging additional fees and extending probation time.
"For counties in economic distress, this is attractive to them," said Jasmine Heiss, a project director for the Vera Institute of Justice, which advocates for criminal justice reforms.
What counties often don't take into consideration is the cost to them of rearresting and jailing people who cannot meet the financial conditions of the private probation company, which continues to make a profit, she said.
"One hundred percent of the profit for these companies comes directly from fees," she said. "It's a private industry that's essentially a parasite."
McNeil has since gotten married and now lives with her husband in a home inherited from her late sister. She said the probation companies operated the way they did because "they knew they can get by with it."
The settlement, she said, "ain't never going to make up for what they did to me and so many of my friends."
McNeil aided lawyers with Civil Rights Corps to identify others who were ensnared in the private probation system in Giles County. She knew many personally, including Tanya Mitchell and her daughter, Indya Hilfort, who lived together along with Mitchell's four grandchildren in a mobile home.
Mitchell, who was unemployed and in poor health, borrowed money from friends and family to pay the $45 monthly probation fee after her misdemeanor arrest. She was still under supervision of the private probation company when the suit was filed.
She died before it was settled. McNeil said she wanted Mitchell acknowledged in this story, because Mitchell braved being named in the lawsuit even as her freedom remained in the hands of her private probation officer.
Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.