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Scandal: Courts Allow Private Probation Companies to Extort Payments from Poor Defendants

Human Rights Watch finds more than 1,000 courts across south delegate huge coercive power to private, unregulated companies.
 
 
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Private probation companies and local courts are colluding to hustle low-income misdemeanants across the South out of tens of millions of dollars in legal fines and fines, and jailing those who cannot pay, says a new report today released by Human Rights Watch.

HRW found that in some states, especially Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, probation has been repurposed to resemble a debt-collection service, in which poor defendants who cannot pay their court fines are placed on probation with private companies that aggressively try to extract payment regardless of defendants' abilities to meet financial obligations. While on probation with a private company, a defendant must pay court fines in addition to company supervision fees. 

If probationers fail to make payments on time, companies prepare arrest warrants that must be signed by a judge. HRW revealed that many local judges approve such warrants without scrutiny or even with complicity, despite a legal obligation to consider defendants' financial standing. 

Once misdemeanants are jailed, they are often pummeled with even more fines and fees by the court, and their probation sentences are extended in order to lengthen collection time. The Brennan Center for Justice previously compared the entrapment of poor probationers in this cycle of debt to the system of debtor's prisons in the 19th century. 

AlterNet previously reported on the legal scandals incited by some of the larger companies within the private probation industry. 

HRW issued a number of recommendations for state governments to reassess how probation companies are regulated. Overall, the advocacy group suggests that courts be prohibited from imposing supervision fees on probationers when they cannot pay court fines upfront, that a public entity assess probationers' abilities to pay (rather than a probation company), and that the state conduct more frequent audits of the industry's collection practices. HRW also implores probation companies to publish data on how much money they collect from the defendants they supervise, the number of warrants they issue, and the number of probation sentences they revoke every year.

The report comes at a time when the state legislature in Georgia--ground-zero for the expanding industry--is debating whether to give even more legal authority to probation companies. A bill in the Georgia House of Representatives "would allow companies to request that a judge reinstate supervision, along with fees, even if the original term of probation had run out," says NBC. The bill would also increase companies' immunity from liability in the event of legal challenges.

Aaron Cantú is an investigator for the Marijuana Arrest Research Project and an independent journalist based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @aaronmiguel_