Imagine you’re caught driving without a license. You go to court, plead guilty and they tell you to pay a fine of $250. Seems fairly straightforward, right? But instead of paying your fine to the court, a private company begins to bill you. Not only that, every month they tack on an extra $35 to your charge. Soon your $250 starts to balloon, and despite paying well over what you were charged by the court, you remain on probation. Sound crazy? Well, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report, more than 1,000 courts across the United States are creating scenarios just like this.
Private probation, otherwise known as offender-funded systems, are gaining in popularity across the country. Those charged with offenses that don’t warrant jail time (stealing a beer, driving without a license) are released on probation and charged their court fees as standard practice. However, in private systems, those debts are then handed over to a corporation, who take charge of collections, alcohol monitoring devices and drug testing.
Can you see where the conflict of interest comes in yet? A ‘supervision fee’ that can range from $35-$100 is charged monthly to offenders, regardless of income status. Such fees are established at the company’s discretion without regulation by the court.
‘Pay-only’ programs have become the bread and butter of the private probation industry. Offenders are put on probation simply for their inability to pay court fees in full on the day of their trial. So, let’s say I’m fined a court fee of $1,200 dollars that I can pay off right away. Suddenly my probation is no longer deserved, lucky me. Yet if I don’t have a cool thousand lying around, I will immediately begin racking up fees. So if I can afford to pay $85 a month into my debt, I will spend 24 months on probation and almost $900 of my dollars will go directly to the company for simply collecting my fee. HRW puts it succinctly:
“An offender who requires 24 months on probation to pay off a $1,200 fine, with a $35 monthly supervision fee, would be financially better off taking out a $1,200, 24-month loan with an APR of 50 percent. She would also not have to face the direct threat of incarceration over missed payments, as she would while on probation.”
In the 1983 Supreme Court case of Bearden vs. Georgia it was determined that a court cannot revoke probation due to inability to pay a fine. However, courts give the charge of determining this ability to private companies. Essentially telling them: you don’t get paid unless you make them pay, so please fairly determine if they can pay. Naturally private companies have found their way around Bearden vs. Georgia on the technicality that failure to pay is willful. Such assumptions can be based on arbitrary factors such as owning a pair of nice shoes, or showing up with a pack of cigarettes. Claims of poverty are also readily dismissed by courts. For instance, Quentone Moore, an ex-Marine, pleaded with the judge over his lack of income. Yet he was still given 52 days in jail after he failed to establish a land-line phone while homeless.
Thomas Barett of Georgia was fined $200 from the court for stealing one can of beer. Yet the fees he owed to these private companies ranged into the thousands. He was eventually incarcerated despite the fact that his monthly fees superseded his yearly income. A middle aged woman from Mississippi, fined $377 for driving without a valid license, was threatened with jail for failing to pay off more than $500 in supervision fees, even though her debt had bee repaid to the court. When contacted, the court had no idea, saying they in “no way authorized the probation company to threaten her with arrest.”
The threat of incarceration is a trump card probation companies often use to extract their money. Yet it’s one that makes zero sense to the public. It costs taxpayers around $50 to keep someone in jail for a day. If an offender owes $250 in court fees, and goes to jail for a week, the public actually loses money. One system in Georgia dealt with this by renting jail space to probation companies, leaving 72 spaces to incarcerate those as they see fit, essentially creating a debtor’s prison.
Such violations could be curtailed in a number of ways. HRW suggests legislation that prohibits supervision fees in pay-only cases. They also suggest publishing company data on money collected in fees and fines, as well as providing clear regulatory framework on how such private probationary companies should practice. The fact is, violations that shouldn’t warrant anything more than a slap on the wrist are driving citizens into poverty while corporations profit. And the longer we allow these private organizations to act with impunity, the longer the poorest in America will suffer.