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Flatow reports: "For those who can afford it, many misdemeanor violations and traffic violations are punished with a fine that can be paid the very same day. But for those who can't, those same offenses may become subject to a punishment much more menacing, in a profit-driven system of private probation that imposes interest and fees with a threat of jail time on those who are often least able to pay."

The private prison industry is profiting from poor people's inability to pay fines. (photo: AP)
The private prison industry is profiting from poor people's inability to pay fines. (photo: AP)

How Private Companies Are Profiting From Threats to Jail the Poor

By Nicole Flatow, ThinkProgress

07 February 14


or those who can afford it, many misdemeanor violations and traffic violations are punished with a fine that can be paid the very same day. But for those who can't, those same offenses may become subject to a punishment much more menacing, in a profit-driven system of private probation that imposes interest and fees with a threat of jail time on those who are often least able to pay.

In one Georgia instance documented in an extensive new Human Rights Watch report, a man who stole a $2 can of beer ended up in jail for failure to pay a $200 fine that ballooned into more than $1,000 under the supervision of a private probation firm. Thomas Barrett's entire income - which included selling his own blood plasma - was less than the monthly fee imposed by the private probation firm.

In Mississippi, a woman who had paid off her entire $377 fine for driving without a license was being threatened with arrest for failure to pay so-called "supervision fees" being charged by a private probation firm. Court officials told Human Rights Watch the firm had no authority to threaten arrest.

In Alabama, judges have enforced the threats of probation companies to impose jail time for those who fees and fines that piled up from private probation.

More than 1,000 courts around the country are shifting the burden of monitoring payment of fines to private probation firms, sentencing hundreds of thousands of individuals each year to their supervision. In what is perhaps the most extensive documentation of the practice of privatizing another aspect of the criminal justice system, Human Rights Watch finds that these firms are subject to scant monitoring by local governments and courts, free to impose fees and fines in amounts that are not regulated by any government entity.

Among the monthly fees lobbed onto probation are monthly "supervision" fees, even where the only supervision mandated by the court is collection of a fee, rather than other probationary terms that would impose a cost on the company. Other times, it is the heavy cost of electronic monitoring or drug tests.

In the case of Barrett, the man who stole a beer, he was put on electronic monitoring at a cost of $360 per month. Barrett was living on subsidized housing and food stamps. Even using the money from sale of his blood plasma, Barrett could not keep up with the payments. But the most perverse thing about the scenario was that Barrett's alcohol consumption was being monitored, even though his probation terms did not include a ban on alcohol. "As Augusta attorney Jack Long put it in an interview with Human Rights Watch, 'He could have sat around and drank beer all day and it would have monitored that but it would not have been a violation of his probation.' "

In another instance in Augusta County, Ga., a homeless man was placed on electronic monitoring that required him to have land line, and spent 52 days in jail because he could not physically comply with the monitoring order. Companies also order weekly drug testing, sometimes at a cost of $25 per test, or $1,250 per year.

While probation is typically aimed at those who would otherwise go to jail if they were not subject to monitoring, these private firms have expanded their purview to glorified debt collection - with jail time as punishment for failure to pay. This practice of jailing those who can't afford to pay - so-called "debtors' prisons" was invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court more than 30 years ago. Probation company officials and courts claim to comply with this court ruling by assessing ability to pay, but in many instance they use factors such as a defendant's possession of a pack of cigarettes or two cell phones that they can pay, even where they are homeless, on public assistance, or otherwise make clear that they have no sufficient sources of income.

"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," the report explains.

As the Human Rights Watch report explains, this phenomenon emerged in part from a resource squeeze throughout the criminal justice system. State resources focused on probation for felony offenses punt misdemeanors to county and municipal governments, who cannot afford to oversee probation services. Private probation firms offered to fill those gaps at no cost to the municipalities, and many jumped at the opportunity.

So-called "offender-funded" probation means that the private firms shoulder the cost of monitoring an individual by charging that individual interest. Private probation firms then impose interest and fees as they see fit, and "make probationers' freedom contingent on paying those fees." Some states such as Montana have publicly run "offender-funded" probation systems. The difference, however, is that if fees collected are insufficient to cover the costs of the system, public resources cover the balance. "Only private probation firms can offer courts a probation service that is guaranteed to cost them nothing," the report explains.

The industry has also been encouraged by an ideological preference for privatizing government services, tracking the proliferation of privatized prisons and prison services. And while the probation services claim to be free of cost, jailing those offenders for nonpayment of fees imposed by the private firms costs an average of $50 a day.

The report found that the practice of jailing those who can't afford to pay violates both constitutional and international law. Several courts have invalidated particularly questionable practices, including illegally extending probation sentences and one Alabama judge even invalidated imprisonment of those who don't pay their fees, rebuking the firm for running a "debtors' prison." But in many jurisdictions, the absence of even the most basic monitoring prevents jurisdictions from knowing how these firms are operating. your social media marketing partner


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+25 # keenon the truth 2014-02-07 09:25
What a scary country the US is.
+21 # JSRaleigh 2014-02-07 12:02
Quoting keenon the truth:
What a scary country the US is.

Soon it will be just like Dickens' England or Hugo's France.
+9 # backwards_cinderella 2014-02-07 15:15
we already are.
+20 # m... 2014-02-07 11:03

What is the name of this oppressive country the article is talking about..? Sounds like some sort of harsh Fascist Regime has take over there. Do we have an embassy there..?
Really..! Where is this creepy place..?
+22 # Jingze 2014-02-07 11:11
The USA is a fascist state.Why won't its citizens rise up against the constant, outrageous treatment leveled at them?
+15 # soularddave 2014-02-07 11:53
We all think we're about to win the lottery and become part of the 1 percent.
+1 # m... 2014-02-07 19:23
Because… The LimbaughFoxTrot Center for The Bullshit Pathway to Greater Freedom, Liberty, Justice and Prosperity for ALL highly 'suggests' 24/7 in relentless anger-building, hate-mongeing, nation-dividing fashion that LESS and LESS and LESS and LESS and LESS and LESS and LESS Government through Privatization of Government Schemes is the best, flag waving, American Way to get it done, create equally and make us all………………… 1 PERCENTERS..!!! !!…. It will be GLORIOUS..!!
''Lets Get Government Off Our Backs..!'' It feels so much much better to have the warm embrace of unfettered Corporations running everything-- because -- they're EFFICIENT at making money..! And that's what all Americans Dream of and Want replacing their Government and all the Governments of the WORLD--- The Folks that know how to MAKE MONEY..!'
""Its just 'better' that way!''''

+14 # Saberoff 2014-02-07 11:30
I've never understood bail money anyway.
What is it but a freeing of the rich?
Help me out here.
-2 # m... 2014-02-08 00:00
I cannot believe you think like that and that you received so many thumbs up…
Granted, in a narrow way of looking at it, you're right..'Bail' can be unfair with regards to Rich v. Poor…
But don't forget about the Bail Bond Industry and all the average working class people who obtain bail through a bail bond.. And so, are then able to go about far more freely and actively participating in their own defense, perhaps even clearing themselves of the charges. And in the meantime, still maintaing their life and households until the issues are resolved one way or the other.
0 # John S. Browne 2014-02-08 11:58
You are right, "Saberoff". The Eighth Amendment is violated all the time in the U.S. by imposing unreasonable bail for all felony crimes, particularly where the defendants are poor. They are almost always imposed a bail that they cannot even pay the ten or whatever percent it is that they would have to come up with in order to bail themselves out of jail. EVERYONE should have a bail imposed that they could possibly pay, especially without they themselves, or their families, having to put up their homes as collateral for the bail. Most impoverished people usually cannot afford bail because the bail amount is intentionally set at an amount that the court knows, or hopes, the defendants won't even be able to pay the required percentage of in order to post bail, and that no one the defendants are connected with will (be able to) bail them out, so the authorities can keep them in jail. It's a sick, corrupt, broken system.

0 # John S. Browne 2014-02-08 11:59
This is why I say that criminal penalties, particularly levied against the authorities, need to be enacted for violating the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Since the authorities know that there's no penalty for violating same, they further know that they can violate same with impunity; and, thus, they do so, constantly. The state judicial performance commissions that are supposed to hold judges accountable are a joke, and they usually rubberstamp whatever judges do. Judges have to do something extremely egregious that causes a huge public outcry before they are even threatened with the possibility of being removed from the bench; and, even then, they usually get off with a reprimand, if even that. In fact, in most cases, the commission sides with the judges and claims them guilty of no wrongdoing. It's madness, but it's been going on almost as long as the system has existed.

0 # John S. Browne 2014-02-08 12:01
If judges knew that there were enforced penalties for violating human and civil rights, and there were no mandatory minimum jail or prison sentences, they would be a lot more fair in their dispensing of justice, our prison population would be a lot lower, there would be much less "need" for private jails and prisons, and the U.S. would no longer be the largest "gulag-nation" in the world. But, forgive me, I know that I'm dreaming, and that none of this will ever be allowed to happen. It's a nice dream, though; and one can continue to hope and fight for True Justice, although it is not likely to be realized this side heaven. We've got to keep fighting for it, though; because, without at least some semblance of True Justice, the U.S. would go completely out of control. Oh, that's right, it already is! My bad.
+13 # giraffee2012 2014-02-07 11:34
Hey Baggers who want small government so their backers can privatize that which government must "follow rules for all" (except banksters and politicians)

Any Bagger (who has children) - ever think of the country you leave behind for your heirs?

+16 # Majikman 2014-02-07 13:09
If one is rich, drives drunk, kills several people, critically injures several others then no jail time at all because that person gets off on an "Affluenza" defense.
American justice ..ain't it great?
+11 # giraffee2012 2014-02-07 13:56
IF a rich person wants to buy a better car, house, education, etc. OK BY ME. But I do not want a rich person to by a better justice for him than me. That is where the LINE must be drawn.

Hey, RATS on U.S. Supreme Court - do your duty and repeal Citizens United whereby the rich have opportunity to buy our politicians and justice system (including you, Scalia, Roberts, Alito, Thomas)
+1 # WolfTotem 2014-02-10 11:17
So where’s the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Varlam Shalamov, the Yevgenia Ginzburg to write up America’s Gulag Archipelago?
Step forward, Unknown Writer, and tell the world!
If your work’s up to the high standard of the Russian greats and you still can’t find a publisher, you’ll surely find one in Russia. The pot’s as black as ever but it still likes to call the kettle black. Ironic, ain’t it?

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