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Skip Meals or Go to Jail? How the For-Profit Probation Industry Preys on the Poor | The Nation

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Steven Hsieh

Steven Hsieh

Stories that matter. Tips: shsieh@thenation.com.

Skip Meals or Go to Jail? How the For-Profit Probation Industry Preys on the Poor

Probation

Thomas Barrett spent months in jail because he could not afford heavy probation fees. His original crime: stealing a $2 can of beer. (Human Rights Watch)

A new Human Rights Watch report released Wednesday documents how the growing use of for-profit probation companies traps poor Americans in the criminal justice system—sometimes jailing them—for misdemeanor crimes or even minor traffic violations.

The report, titled “Profiting From Probation: America’s ‘Offender-Funded’ Probation Industry,” describes a for-profit model that incentivizes probation companies to prey on poor misdemeanor offenders, ensnaring them in debt and threatening imprisonment if financial obligations are not met. As Chris Albom-Lackey, the researcher at Human Rights Watch who authored the report, writes, “In fact, 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.”

In one of several cases documented in the report, Georgia resident Thomas Barrett wound up in jail after failing to pay more than a thousand dollars in accumulated probation fees. His original crime: stealing a $2 can of beer. Barrett skipped meals and sold his blood plasma to pay down his debt, but didn’t make enough to keep up with growing costs.

This video, produced by Human Rights Watch in conjunction with its report, tells the story of Thomas Barrett and other probationers trapped by the system:

“Probation is supposed to be a way to keep people out of jail, a way for courts to subject people to monitoring and oversight instead of locking them up,” Albom-Lackey told NBC. “What we see in the context of private probation is the whole thing being turned on its head.”

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The report says tightening budgets have prompted courts and counties to turn to private firms for probation services. Probation companies handle hundreds of thousands of offenders every year at no cost to the governments that hire them. The probationers themselves end up footing the bill, which includes “supervision fees” that become revenue for the companies in charge. This whole system disproportionately impacts poor Americans, who often cannot afford probation fees and face punishment as a result, the report says.

Here are some of the HRW’s key findings:

  • Under the “offender-funded” model, private firms levy fees on poor probationers that are are financially crushing and often times impossible to pay off. On top of exorbitant supervision fees, many offenders must pay for their own electronic monitoring (up to $360 per month) and drug tests (up to $1,250 per year).

  • Some courts sentence offenders to probation simply because they cannot afford fines and court costs, a practice called “pay only probation” that Human Rights Watch deems “a legal fiction.” In effect, poorer offenders stay on probation longer and end up paying significantly more, due to supervision fees levied by private firms.

  • Private probation officers routinely use “abusive” tactics to collect debts from offenders. These range from coercive demands (“I hope you have all my money today”) to threats of imprisonment.

  • Though the US Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to incarcerate probationers who genuinely cannot afford fines, there is little effort made to understand offenders’ financial situations. The report says many probation revocation hearings last just minutes, and few offenders are offered legal representation.

  • There is practically no transparency in the industry. Private probation companies aren’t required to disclose revenues they make from probationers and do not offer that information voluntarily.

  • While it’s impossible to get exact figures, HRW used a law unique to Georgia to estimate that private probation companies make roughly $40 million in minimum annual revenues in the state alone.

Read the full report here.

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