Last April, in a column titled Debtors Prisons, Once a 19th-Century Relic, Again Wreaking Havoc in US, I wrote: "The jailing of people unable to pay fines and court costs is no longer a relic of the 19th century American judicial system. Debtors' prisons are alive and well in one-third of the states in this country." Last week, I received a Press Release from the Ohio American Civil Liberties Union that appeared to strike a blow against this appalling phenomenon.
The release stated that "the Supreme Court of Ohio distributed a new 'bench card' to all of the state's judges, giving much needed instructions to avoid the unconstitutional practice of sending people to jail when they owe the court fines and are unable to pay. The Ohio Supreme Court's "bench card" was a definite blow to what had become the routine jailing in several states of people who were not able to pay fines imposed for a relatively minor crime committed."
Now, however, a new report by Human Rights Watch has revealed another way that poor people are being unduly financially burdened and, in many cases, imprisoned for not having enough money to pay their court-imposed fines. According to Profiting from Probation: America's 'Offender-Funded' Probation Industry, privately owned companies handling the probation of offenders are "routinely jailing probationers" for not being able to pay fees owed to those companies.
Private companies are Profiting from Probation
"Every year, US courts sentence several hundred thousand people to probation and place them under the supervision of for-profit companies for months or years at a time," Profiting from Probation points out. "They then require probationers to pay these companies for their services. Many of these offenders are only guilty of minor traffic violations like speeding or driving without proof of insurance. Others have shoplifted, been cited for public drunkenness, or committed other misdemeanor crimes. Many of these offenses carry no real threat of jail time in and of themselves, yet each month, courts issue thousands of arrest warrants for offenders who fail to make adequate payments towards fines and probation company fees."
Putting people in jail for failure to pay their private probation handlers is part of what is called the "'offender-funded' model of privatized probation that prevails in well over 1,000 courts across the US." "Offender funded" is exactly what it sounds like; "Courts in some US states charge offenders fees to help defray the costs of running a probation service."
Profiting from Probation is a 72-page report that is "based largely" on more than 75 interviews with people in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi during the second half of 2013. "It shows how some company probation officers behave like abusive debt collectors. … explains how some courts and probation companies combine to jail offenders who fall behind on payments they cannot afford to make, in spite of clear legal protections meant to prohibit this…. [and] argues that the fee structure of offender-funded probation is inherently discriminatory against poor offenders, and imposes the greatest financial burden on those who are least able to afford to pay."
Although it may be difficult to imagine in the twenty-first century, "the business of many private probation companies is built largely on the willingness of courts to discriminate against poor offenders who can only afford to pay their fines in installments over time."
Offenders caught in a catch-22
Offenders are caught in a catch 22: If they could afford to fully pay their fines, they wouldn't be sentenced to probation, and would subsequently not be subject to the costs of paying for probation supervision by private companies. Some offenders take years paying out these fees and wind up paying significantly more than the original fine.
For stealing a can of beer from a Georgia convenience store, Thomas Barrett pled guilty and was fined $200. Over time he discovered that he owed his probation company $1000, more money than he made in a month. In Mississippi, a middle-aged woman was fined $377 for driving without a valid license, and her company probation officer threatened to jail her because she owed the company $500 in unpaid supervision fees.
The report points out that financially strapped counties and municipalities have turned to private companies to run their probation programs. "Many courts have repurposed probation into a debt collection tool and are primarily interested in the services of probation companies as a means towards that end. In what is euphemistically referred to as "pay only" probation, people are sentenced to probation for just one reason: they don't have money and they need time to pay down their fines and court costs. Pay only probation is an extremely muscular form of debt collection masquerading as probation supervision, with all costs billed to the debtor. It is essentially a legal fiction and it is the cornerstone of many probation companies' business."
A growing predatory industry
Judicial Correction Services and Sentinel Offender Services are the two companies most often cited in the report and are, according to Human Rights Watch, "arguably the most significant industry players, and …the two firms that have been most widely implicated in alleged abuses."
The Georgia-headquartered Judicial Correction Services (JCS) is, relatively speaking, "an industry giant." In 2011, it was acquired by Correctional Healthcare Companies, a "privately held corporation that also focuses on the provision of healthcare services to prisons and bills itself as a provider of 'integrated healthcare solutions' to the criminal justice system 'including inmate healthcare, outpatient treatment, mental health, behavioral programming and treatment case management services." In 2012, the private equity group GTCR acquired CHC.
By late last year, JCS was "operat[ing] in some 480 courts … [in] Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. …At any given point in time JCS employees are supervising approximately 38,000 probationers."
Sentinel Offender Services "is a privately held California corporation whose physical presence is largely based in Georgia, [and] is largely controlled by its founder Bob Contestabile and his son Mark Contestabile, who heads up the company's east coast operations." According to the report, "Sentinel claims to operate in 48 US states, mostly providing GPS monitoring and other services for government clients. The company's offender-funded probation supervision business operates exclusively in Georgia. There, the company works with 80 courts and supervises between 23,000 and 35,000 offenders at any given point in time. Sentinel boasts that it has supervised more than 500,000 probationers since 1992.
"Sentinel also provides electronic monitoring and other services to government clients in California and elsewhere. It operates a monitoring center in Irvine, California that tracks offenders on various forms of electronic monitoring for Sentinel's government clients as well as its own probation business."
Over the past few years, any civil liberties organizations have been working to make debtors prisons truly a thing of the past. It is now time to shine the spotlight on predatory probation privateers that are preying on the poor.
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