In theory, shifting oversight of probationers from courts to for-profit corporations would reduce government bureaucracy and save taxpayers money. And if that were the only measure of success, privatized probation services would be a smash hit.
The reality, unfortunately, is that privatization has created a perverse system in which companies operating outside the purview of the courts are shaking down folks, including some of society’s most marginalized. For what? Exorbitant “supervision” fees and extended probation terms under threat of jail time.
The business euphemistically is referred to as “pay only” or “offender-funded” probation. “State-sanctioned indentured servitude” may be more accurate.
According to a report released recently by an international human rights organization, private probation abuses are not only a problem in Georgia – as indicated by the active civil rights lawsuit against Sentinel Offender Services in Richmond County. It’s an issue in several other states as well.
The group, New York-based Human Rights Watch, issued a 72-page report, “Profiting from Probation: America’s ‘Offender-Funded’ Probation Industry.” It found that some company probation officers “behave like
abusive debt collectors” and that the companies and courts often “combine to jail offenders who fall behind on payments they cannot afford to make, in spite of clear legal protections meant to prohibit this.”
Georgia has allowed local courts to outsource oversight of misdemeanor cases since 2000. Such charges – which can include traffic violations, public drunkenness, shoplifting and disorderly conduct – rarely result in jail time, and carry fines less than $1,000.
However, probationers can end up paying double or quadruple that amount in fees to private probation firms.
The trouble starts when people unable to pay their fines in a lump sum receive probation as a way to pay the fine off in installments. The poorer people are, the longer it takes to pay and the longer they remain on probation, which results in higher fees.
The problem is compounded for offenders who fail to pay. They can have their probation revoked and a no-bond warrant issued for their arrest, long after the expiration of their original probation term.
“Often, the poorer people are, the more they ultimately pay in company fees and the more likely it is that they will wind up behind bars,” said Chris Albin-Lackey, senior researcher on business and human rights at Human Rights Watch.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it is unconstitutional to incarcerate people who can’t afford to pay a fine or fee, yet lack of judicial oversight has enabled private probation companies to routinely obtain arrest warrants for probationers for that very reason.
Clearly, something is wrong here. The system needs a legislative overhaul and closer supervision by courts.
This page has long been in favor of privatization in appropriate circumstances. Many government services could be delivered less expensively and more effectively by the private sector.
However, the privatization of probation services, in its current form, resembles predatory lending at best and criminal extortion at worst.
The irony is that courts consider probation a lenient alternative to jail sentences. Given the practices of some probation companies, jail might be a better deal in the long run.