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How Private Probation Companies Make Money From the Those They Trap in the Justice System

Governments still award services to companies with moneyed interest in jailing ever more people.

Marietta Conner watched the judge expectantly. The 63-year-old assistant minister had just pled guilty to “fail[ing] to yield to a pedestrian”—a criminal misdemeanor in Georgia—and did not have enough money to pay her $140 fine. The judge ordered that she be put on probation. But instead of county probation, Conner was assigned a private probation company supposed to mimic normal court probabation: meet with her once a month through a probation officer, collect payments and confirm her work and address. In the end, the company sapped Conner of well over the original amount of the fine, and even dangled an arrest warrant over her head when it erroneously claimed she had missed a payment.

Conner was lucky. She knew someone at the Southern Center for Human Rights who helped her escape the trap the correctional corporation tried to put her in. Yet for hundreds of thousands of others on probation through a private company, the experience routinely entails prolonged harassment, indebtedness and even imprisonment—and sometimes all with the blessing of a judge.

To be ensnared in America’s system of mass incarceration is to be in prison, on parole, or on probation. In 2012 1 in every 35 American adults was trapped in the criminal justice system. The surging number of people whose lives necessitate constant surveillance and management has exploded the coffers of state and federal budgets, and rather than reform heavy-handed laws to ease this burden on public funds, elected leaders have contracted incarceration services out to companies with a moneyed interest in jailing more Americans. 

The private prison industry has stoked the outrage of progressives and civil libertarians for years, as has the practice of prosecutors pushing plea bargains with heavy parole, but an equally dangerous phenomenon is the rise of private probation businesses across the country.  Since the 1970s, the private probation industry has expanded into at least 20 states—most concentrated in the South—and nearly all of its companies are entirely supported by the fees paid to them by the probationers they “serve.” In the last few years, many of these businesses have been given more power to pursue and imprison probationers, playing a starring role in what one federal judge called a “ judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”

When someone is convicted of a misdemeanor crime, he or she is often placed on probation by a judge either in lieu of minor prison time or as part of a payment plan to pay off court fines levied for his charge. Traditionally, the purpose of probation has been to facilitate the rehabilitation of the probationer through constant contact with a representative of the court (a probation officer), although this concept may be farcical in an age when an adult can be placed under “community supervision” for jaywalking. With privatized supervision, the offenders are required to report monthly to a contractor acting in the same capacity as a probation officer, and they must also pay a monthly fee to the company on top of the fines they owe the court.

The distinction between fee and fine is important because, as noted by the Economist, it is through fees that private probation companies can afford to pay the salaries of their staff. A report from the Criminal Justice Review explained that “Private agencies…rely on the probationer’s paying a supervision fee to remain solvent.” Solvency, however, is hardly a concern for many of these corporations, some of which have amassed tens of millions of dollars annually off the fees they charge probationers.

One such company is Sentinel Offender Services, whose combined operations in four different states brought in $30 million in 2009, according to an investigation by NBC. The company has faced many legal challenges on the grounds that its employees demand payment for fees from poor probationers and then issue arrest warrants when they cannot pay, without consideration for their financial situation. Marietta Conner, the impoverished pastor, was under the supervision of Sentinel.

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