“You Got to Come Up With That Money or You Are Going to Jail”

How privatizing probation hurts the poor.

Human Rights Watch
Thomas Barrett, destitute and living primarily off food stamps, was arrested in 2012 for stealing a can of beer valued at $2 and was sentenced to probation with Sentinel Offender Services, a for-profit firm. Despite selling his own blood plasma twice a week to raise money, Barrett fell more than $1,000 behind in his payments and was jailed for failure to pay.

Poor people are disadvantaged by the legal system in so many ways that it’s hard to keep track. In some cases, they are effectively punished just for being poor. One increasingly widespread example is probation—the period an offender spends, often as an alternative to prison, under the watchful eye of the state. The problem is that increasingly it’s not the government that’s supervising people on probation—it is private companies. The courts don’t actually pay these companies for their services. Instead, they give them the power to charge fees to the people they supervise. As the New York Times reported in 2012, if you don’t pay, you can land in jail.

A new report I wrote for Human Rights Watch shows how widespread this kind of privatization is—and how much hardship it is causing. This piece is adapted from that report. You can read the whole thing at Profiting by Probation.

Watch: For-Profit Probation Tramples the Rights of Poor

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are sentenced to probation with private companies every year by well over 1,000 courts across the U.S. In Georgia, a state of less than 10 million people, 648 courts assigned more than 250,000 cases to private probation companies in 2012. In Tennessee, probation companies supervised a minimum of 50,000 offenders that year, and probably at least 80,000. Probation companies in Alabama work with well over 100 courts across the state. And in Mississippi, leading firm Judicial Correction Services expanded aggressively into new markets in the Mississippi Delta region, including some of the poorest counties in the country, before abruptly pulling out of the state altogether in December 2013. The industry also has deep roots in Florida, the first state to allow privatized probation services, and a significant presence in courts across at least a dozen states all told. The most robust markets for offender-funded probation services are in the South, but states as geographically diverse as Michigan, Montana, Utah, and Washington have also embraced the industry to one degree or another.

The probation business thrives on volume. Relatively low margins on a per-offender basis can translate into significant profits when multiplied out over large numbers of probationers. Take Dekalb County in Georgia, for example. The court there sentences thousands of people to probation with the firm Judicial Correction Services (JCS) each year, and the company probably collects over $1 million in annual revenues from probationers in that one court alone.

The longer it takes offenders to pay off their debts, the longer they remain on probation and the more they pay in supervision fees. In other words, the poorer a person is the more they ultimately pay and the longer they have to live with the threat of possible incarceration hanging over their heads. Some low-income offenders end up paying more in fees to their probation company than they were sentenced to pay in fines to begin with. Those fees are costs an offender of greater economic means could avoid altogether.

In Sandersville, Ga., we interviewed Van Houston, a 64-year-old Vietnam veteran, on the day he was sentenced to 24 months’ probation for driving under the influence. An admitted alcoholic on the verge of entering a residential treatment facility, Houston said that his only income was a monthly $599 Social Security check, or about $7,200 annually. The court sentenced him to $4,500 in fines and other costs, not including probation fees, of $40 per month, payable to a private firm called Providence Community Corrections. His required monthly payments came in at $216 per month, more than a third of his meager income—with almost 20 percent of each payment going to company fees rather than to pay down his fines. Wearing a stained white shirt and a faded red tie to court on the day of his sentencing, Houston explained to us that: “I’ll be 65 in October. When I was working I made $600 in just one week, but now I’m getting that one week’s pay every month. Don’t let this tie and these shoes fool you—I’ve got class but I ain’t got money. I wish I had more money but I’m out of time for that.”

Why is all of this happening? Courts hire probation companies partly because they want something for nothing: a probation service they don’t pay for themselves. Then some courts try to use their private probation firms as debt collectors—meaning that people are on the hook for probation fees purely because they don’t have the money to pay their fines up front. In many places there’s also virtually no government oversight for any of this. Many courts instead rely on the companies to let them know if there are offenders whose fees ought to be waived because they are indigent—an absolutely terrible idea considering that companies have a financial stake in collecting those fees. And because all of this is happening to poor people at the very bottom rungs of the criminal justice system, in low level courts where reporters rarely go, not enough people are paying attention. It’s time to change that.