Systemic Justice Advisor

Some 2016 Conference Photos

Systemic Lawyering Panel Panelists: Tyler Giannini; Thomas Harvey; Dean Strang Moderator: Salome Viljoen


Dean Strang Keynote: “Humility in Criminal Justice: Systemic Questions it Would Invite Us to Reconsider”

Dean Strang Keynote: “Humility in Criminal Justice: Systemic Questions it Would Invite Us to Reconsider”

Brunch Forum: From 3L to SL: Recent Grad Discussion Participants: Sima Atri; Sameer Birring; Stephanie Davidson; Ben Elga; Blake Strode; Max Utzschneider Moderator: Jacob Lipton

Brunch Forum: From 3L to SL: Recent Grad Discussion
Participants: Sima Atri; Sameer Birring; Stephanie Davidson; Ben Elga; Blake Strode; Max Utzschneider
Moderator: Jacob Lipton


Lydia Edwards Running for State Senate!

Lydia Edwards2

The amazing Lydia Edwards, a member of our Board of Advisers, has announced her candidacy for the Massachusetts State Senate.  She writes:

“I want to advocate for the working families of Boston, Cambridge, Revere and Winthrop. I’ve already begun this work with my involvement in campaigns for better wages, earned sick time, protection from discrimination and the earned income tax credit. In my work as a public interest attorney, I am reminded every day how hard it is for many people to afford housing, find work that pays a living wage and achieve the American dream. I have fought time and again for the working people of Massachusetts, and I would be honored to represent the great people of First Suffolk and Middlesex as their Senator.”

We can think of no better person for the job.  The Boston Globe calls her “the lawyer with the heart of activist.”  To us, she is the most inspiring, tireless, and effective systemic lawyer we know working on behalf immigrant workers who are victims of wage theft, human trafficking, and worse.  We are confident she would bring to her work as a legislator that same brilliance and commitment to justice.

To learn more about Lydia and why she’s running or to find ways you can help her campaign, visit her website, here.

Federal Judge Enjoins Unconstitutional Cash Bail

jail bars

Alec Karakatsanis (a member of our Board of Advisors) writes with news about a case that he helped spearhead in which a  federal judge in Georgia yesterday “granted a class-wide preliminary injunction forcing the City of Calhoun to end its unconstitutional use of cash bail to keep impoverished people in government cages after their arrest.”

Here are two excerpts from the thoughtful, 74-page opinion (pdf here):

“Certainly, keeping individuals in jail solely because they cannot pay for their release, whether via fines, fees, or a cash bond, is impermissible. . . . Any bail or bond scheme that mandates payment of pre-fixed amounts for different offenses to obtain pretrial release, without any consideration of indigence or other factors, violates the Equal Protection Clause. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment generally prohibits “punishing a person for his poverty.” . . . This principle has special implications as it relates to depriving a person of his liberty. Attempting to incarcerate or to continue incarceration of an individual because of the individual’s inability to pay a fine or fee is impermissible. . . . This is especially true where the individual being detained is a pretrial detainee who has not yet been found guilty of a crime.”

“The Court ORDERS Defendant to implement post-arrest procedures that comply with the Constitution, and further ORDERS that, unless and until Defendant implements lawful post-arrest procedures, Defendant must release any other misdemeanor arrestees in its custody, or who come into its custody, on their own recognizance or on an unsecured bond in a manner otherwise consistent with state and federal law and with standard booking procedures. Defendant may not continue to keep arrestees in its custodyfor any amount of time solely because the arrestees cannot afford a secured monetary bond.”

Alec is hopeful “that opinions like this–from an experienced federal judge who has been on the federal bench for nearly 40 years–can help spread throughout our legal system the basic principle that no human being should be held in a cage because of her poverty.  We are getting closer each day to making that principle a reality.”

The case reflects a collaboration between Equal Justice Under Law and the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Victory in the Fight Against Money Bail and Private Probation

jail bars

Great news from Alec Karakatsanis (a member of our Board) about another step  toward justice.

Alec’s team won a major victory last night against money bail and private probation in Rutherford County, Tennessee.  The federal court in Nashville issued a 20-page opinion (see pdf link below) condemning the use of money bail to keep misdemeanor probationers in jail prior to revocation hearings.  The judge ordered sweeping changes to the way that thousands of cases are handled.  The judge also ordered the release of all of the prisoners, meaning that potentially hundreds of people will be home for the holidays and prevented from being jailed because of their poverty in the coming months.

Rodriguez v Providence Community Corrections Opinion Granting Injunction (pdf)

Agreeing with the local Sheriff (see video above), the federal judge  made some sweeping statements about the injustice of private probation.  Here is a sample:

The use of secured money bonds has the undeniable effect of imprisoning indigent individuals where those with financial means who have committed the same or worse probation violations can purchase their freedom. This effect stands in flat contradiction to the long-held and much-cherished principle that “[t]here can be no equal justice where the kind of [treatment] a man gets depends upon the amount of money he has.” . . . . The Fourteenth Amendment precludes imprisoning someone because he or she does not have enough money: “When a defendant is imprisoned for financial inability to pay a fine immediately, he is treated more severely than a person capable of paying a fine immediately. The sole distinction is one of wealth, and therefore the procedure is invalid.” . . .


Defendants in this case have determined that PCC probationers are eligible for immediate release upon payment of a monetary bond. They make this determination without any inquiry into indigency. In so doing, Defendants deny release only to those too poor to post bond, meaning that one’s freedom is conditioned upon one’s financial resources. The Constitution protects those in the criminal justice system from such perverse contingencies.


In sum, all four of the factors a court considers when presented with a request for a preliminary injunction weigh in favor of granting the sought-after relief. . . .  A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy never awarded as of right.  But the injustice perpetrated here is just that: extraordinary.

Lawyers Fight Unjust Laws


From Today’s New York Times, an article about the important work that Alec Karakatsanis and his colleagues (with the assistance of several HLS students) have been doing to fight systemic injustice around the country.

In January, Christy Dawn Varden was arrested in a Walmart parking lot, charged with shoplifting and three other misdemeanors, and taken to jail. There, she was told that if she had $2,000, she could post bail and leave. If she did not, she would wait a week before seeing a judge. Ms. Varden, who lived with her mother and two children, had serious mental and physical health problems; her only income was her monthly food stamp allotment.

Two days later, a civil rights lawyer named Alec Karakatsanis sued on behalf of Ms. Varden, alleging that bail policies in Clanton, a city of 8,619, discriminated against the poor by imprisoning them while allowing those with money to go free.

The response was quick: Clanton, while defending its policies, told the court that defendants would be able to see a judge within 48 hours. Within a couple of months, the city agreed to release most misdemeanor defendants immediately, without their posting bail.

Since then, Mr. Karakatsanis has sued six additional jurisdictions in four different states, representing single mothers, homeless men and people with mental disabilities, all who would have been free but for some ready cash. His novel legal strategy has proved effective: So far five of the cities have changed their policies. The suits, which are now being replicated around the country, have won support from the federal Justice Department and rulings that endorse his assertion that the money bail system is unfair to the poor.

There are many more Clantons among the nation’s 15,000 trial courts, civil rights lawyers say, and the key to broad change lies with state and local governments. So courthouse by courthouse, groups as small as Equal Justice Under Law, founded by Mr. Karakatsanis and a fellow Harvard Law School graduate, Phil Telfeyan, and as large as the American Civil Liberties Union are waging a guerrilla campaign to reverse what they consider unconstitutional but widespread practices that penalize the poor. These include jail time for failure to pay fines, cash and property seizure in the absence of criminal charges, and the failure to provide competent lawyers.

More often than not, they are winning — and even pebble-size victories can have a large ripple effect. After a handful of lawsuits in Alabama accused a private probation company of using the threat of jail to collect high fees, the company announced this week that it would leave the state.

In Ohio, a report from the A.C.L.U. on debtors’ prisonlike practices, which jailed offenders for failing to pay fines, helped win changes without legal action. In Washington State, a similar report on four counties led to changes in three; this month, the A.C.L.U. sued the fourth, Benton County, saying it still refused to assess people’s ability to pay fines before jailing them. This week, the organization filed another debtors’ prison case against Biloxi, Miss.

Read entire article here.

Watch related video here.

Weekly Alec Update


Alec Karakatsanis has yet another new debtor’s prison lawsuit, this time in Jackson, Mississippi. I think David Menschel tweets it well:

Badass lawyer sues yet another jurisdiction – this time Jackson, MS – over modern-day debtors’ prisons.

No person has done more to address modern-day debtors prisons than . Working at a ferocious pace. And getting amazing results.

Crazy facts in this Jackson, MS debtors’ prison lawsuit. (p. 4 onward). They throw poorest, disabled people in jail.

Here’s the beginning of the complaint:

The Plaintiffs in this case are impoverished people who were incarcerated by the Defendant City of Jackson, Mississippi (“the City”) because they were unable to pay debts allegedly owed to the City for traffic violations and other misdemeanor offenses. In each case, the City required the Plaintiff to pay all (or a large part) of his debt immediately or be incarcerated at the Hinds County Jail or the Hinds County Penal Farm.1 In the language of the City’s municipal court, the Plaintiffs were ordered to “pay or stay.” Due to their poverty, the Plaintiffs were unable to pay the amounts of money demanded by the City and thus were required to stay in jail. None of the Plaintiffs were afforded the inquiry into their ability to pay that is required by the United States Constitution and Mississippi law. Once incarcerated, the Plaintiffs were told that they could “work off’ their fines at the rate of $58.00 per day, while those who were unable to work were told that they must “sit out” their fines at the rate of $25.00 per day.

Read the full complaint here: Bell_complaint

“these practices have no place in our society.”


This morning, Alec Karakatsanis and a team of Tennessee lawyers filed a class action civil rights debtors’ prison lawsuit in federal court in Nashville. The complaint alleges a systemic corruption, extortion, and racketeering conspiracy that has corrupted the basic delivery of justice in Rutherford County.

The Complaint is devastating in several ways.  For a sample of the powerful stories it contains, read pages 24 – 31 of the complaint (pdf) describing the experiences of Cindy Rodriquez.

The investigation, which will be described in an upcoming New York Times article, was assisted by several HLS students.

Here’s the Complaint’s Introduction.

This lawsuit is about constitutional violations and corruption in the Rutherford County probation supervision system. The Plaintiffs in this case are all people living in poverty who are victims of an extortion scheme in which the Defendants have conspired to extract as much money as possible from misdemeanor probationers through a pattern of illegal and shocking behavior. The crux of this scheme is a conspiracy to funnel misdemeanor probation cases in which court debts are owed to a private company, which then extorts money out of individuals who have no ability to pay court costs, let alone private fees. The private company, whose goal is to maximize its own profits, acts as a “probation officer” to collect those debts—as well as to assess and collect its own additional and substantial fees and surcharges—through repeated and continuous threats to arrest, revoke, and imprison individuals who are indigent and disabled if they do not pay.

As a result of this extortion enterprise, the Plaintiffs and others similarly situated have lost their housing, lost jobs, lost cars, undergone humiliating physical intrusions on their bodies, suffered severe medical injuries, sold their own blood plasma, sacrificed food and clothing for their vulnerable children, and/or diverted their low-income disability checks—all in order to pay private “supervision fees.” They have languished year after year on recurring terms of “user funded probation” under constant threats to their physical well-being, and they have been repeatedly jailed because of their poverty. This cycle of ever-increasing debts, threats, and imprisonment has left the Plaintiffs and thousands of people like them in Rutherford County trapped in a culture of fear and panic.

This civil rights action is brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), the United States Constitution, and Tennessee law to stop the Defendants from continuing to operate a racketeering enterprise that is extorting money from some of the most impoverished people in Rutherford County under constant threat of jail and to prevent the Defendants from misusing the probation supervision process for profit. The treatment of named Plaintiffs Cindy Rodriguez, Steven Gibbs, Paula Pullum, Yolanda Carney, Jacqueline Brinkley, Curtis Johnson, Fred Robinson, and each of the other Plaintiff Class members reveals systemic illegality perpetrated as a matter of ongoing design, policy, and practice by Rutherford County and Providence Community Corrections, Inc. (“PCC, Inc.”), the private company with whom the County has conspired.

By and through their attorneys and on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, the Plaintiffs seek in this civil rights action the vindication of their fundamental rights, compensation for the violations that they suffered, punitive damages to punish the Defendants and to deter similar misconduct in the future, and injunctive relief assuring that their rights will not be violated again. In the year 2015, these practices have no place in our society.

Download the Rodriguez Complaint.

Related posts here.

Bail Reform News from Alabama

jail bars

Systemic Justice Project Advisory Board Member Alec Karakatsanis shared with us news of the today’s federal district court decision by Judge Myron Thompson (Middle District of Alabama) declaring the use of secured bail to be unconstitutional when used without an indigency hearing.  It is unconstitutional, the court reasoned, to keep a person in a jail cell based solely on a monetary payment that that person cannot afford:

“Criminal defendants, presumed innocent, must not be confined in jail merely because they are poor. Justice that is blind to poverty and indiscriminately forces defendants to pay for their physical liberty is no justice at all.”

The opinion was issued in the Clanton, Alabama class action lawsuit, which was the first of  seven class action lawsuits brought by Alec and his collaborators so far this year.

Pdfs of the Court’s declaratory judgment and the opinion explaining the judgment  citing  some great research by other bail reformers are available below:

Read related Systemic Justice Blog posts here.