Privatization of Justice: Probation for Profit
February 6, 2014 1:21 PM   Subscribe

"Every year, US courts sentence several hundred thousand misdemeanor offenders to probation overseen by private companies that charge their fees directly to the probationers. Often, the poorest people wind up paying the most in fees over time, in what amounts to a discriminatory penalty. And when they can’t pay, companies can and do secure their arrest."

The Human Rights Watch releases a report on the for-profit probation industry in the US. The Atlantic weighs in.
posted by stinkfoot (22 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Can't pay fees, go to prison? I'm pretty sure debtor's prison is unconstitutional¹; I'd be interested in seeing a court ruling on the practice.

1. see Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983)
posted by leotrotsky at 1:55 PM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I normally consider myself relatively informed and savvy about topics like this, but I was completely unaware of such a thing as a for-profit probation system.

I also normally consider myself pretty jaded and cynical about topics like this, but A FOR-PROFIT PROBATION SYSTEM WHAT IN THE FUCK IS THE MATTER WITH PEOPLE CHRIST.
posted by Riki tiki at 2:10 PM on February 6, 2014 [16 favorites]

Can't pay fees, go to prison? I'm pretty sure debtor's prison is unconstitutional¹; I'd be interested in seeing a court ruling on the practice.

I assume the argument is that probation isn't a right; since you'd be in prison otherwise, they can restrict anything that they'd be able to restriction in prison (this is why they can do stuff like alcohol monitoring ankle stuff and drug testing as well). I don't think it's right or okay and I think it's horrible, but I think that's the legal argument for it.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 2:13 PM on February 6, 2014

Can't pay fees, go to prison? I'm pretty sure debtor's prison is unconstitutional

Check this out- if you owe money, and can't pay, your creditor can get a judgment demanding you pay it and then have you jailed for contempt of court.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:16 PM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, yeah, the more I think about it the more it turns my stomach. As if life isn't hard enough, especially with poverty and the stigma of arrest, and now adding this constant fear? What do you do when you have to choose between prison and thus not being there for your kids and paying rent or buying them food or clothes or anything to make their lives happier or better? I know this is something we hear a lot but there are so many things that it's the job of the government to do and this is one of them. Farming it out is just horrific and inappropriate and it makes me feel pretty sick.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 2:17 PM on February 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Wow, this is fucked, and I also had no idea about the for-profit probation system. Can't say that it's especially surprising given what else I know of the prison-industrial complex, but it's still terrible.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:21 PM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Re: Bearden v. Georgia:

"In the 1983 case Bearden v. Georgia, the US Supreme Court ruled that a probationer cannot have their probation revoked and be jailed simply for failing to pay a fine if they truly cannot afford to pay it. But many courts do not bother to make any determination as to whether an offender is able to pay the fines, court costs and probation fees they have been sentenced to. This problem is compounded by the fact that many misdemeanor offenders have no legal representation, are broadly unaware of their rights and see their cases disposed of by the court in just one or two minutes.

Instead of taking it on themselves, many courts delegate the task of determining whether an offender possesses the financial means to pay their fines and probation fees to a probation officer. When that probation officer is the employee of a private company, this creates a direct conflict of interest. A probation company’s revenues are entirely derived from the fees probationers pay them, so waiving those fees negatively impacts companies’ financial bottom line. Companies’ financial interests are often best served by using the threat of imprisonment to squeeze probationers and their families as hard as possible to pay as much as they can, no matter how severe a hardship this imposes. It is by no means the case that all company probation officers engage in such practices, but financial incentives push them in that direction. They are exactly the wrong people to task with determining whether an offender is able to pay.

This report includes stories of probationers who say their company probation officers responded with overt hostility and threats when they attempted to explain that they could not afford to keep up with payments. In Augusta, Georgia numerous former probationers accuse Sentinel Offender Services of ignoring their inability to pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars in company fees. Probationers allege that company employees instead squeezed them as hard as they could for as much as they could get before turning to the courts to secure their arrest when they stopped paying.

Just as troubling, many judges ask probation companies rather than their own clerks to prepare arrest warrants for probationers whom the companies allege have violated the terms of their probation. Those warrants require a judge’s signature but some judges do not bother to inquire into the facts around a probationer’s alleged violation. One judge acknowledged to Human Rights Watch that he does not even have time to scrutinize warrants and other company-prepared orders before signing them.

Abuses can and do flow from such de facto delegations of power to probation companies. Human Rights Watch interviewed one probation officer with a medium-sized Georgia firm who explained how she regularly obtains the arrest of offenders who fall behind on their payments. She then approaches their families to negotiate for what she calls “good faith money”—a partial payment on the offender’s arrears—in order to secure the person’s release. She tells family members quite bluntly that it is up to them whether their son, daughter or spouse comes home that night or spends the week in jail awaiting a probation revocation hearing that could land him or her behind bars for weeks or months. Some judges may condone such practices. Others may simply be asleep at the wheel."
posted by stinkfoot at 2:31 PM on February 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

This and similar practices were discussed here in November as well. I hope publicizing these practices helps bring an end to them, and casts a shadow on the whole idea of privatizing government duties.
posted by TedW at 2:38 PM on February 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also, I linked to it in another comment today, but it is worth linking to again: Charles P. Pierce's blog post on the report.
posted by TedW at 2:42 PM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

fuck, i had no idea there were for-profit probation companies.

Shit like this makes me want to go in to politics. Can't be hard to do better.
posted by rebent at 3:14 PM on February 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

To be fair, privatization works great for ... okay, give me a minute here ....
posted by Lesser Shrew at 3:20 PM on February 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

Another day, another article like this.

The American system seems designed to create tired, poor, frightened (or huddled) masses for whom nothing is free.

I live in Europe. A lot has changed here since 1776: maybe we should turn the statue of liberty around to face the other way.
posted by EnterTheStory at 3:43 PM on February 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

This reminded me of interviews with David Simon, creator of The Wire. The interviews typically center more on the effects of the drug industry, but ties in the marginalization of the poor.

Guardian Interview

I don't remember the video in particular that had it, but he had a good example when talking about ankle bracelets, bail bonds, and the industry that has arose to fill the niche of services "needed" by those perpetually caught in the legal system....typically the poor.
posted by samsara at 3:52 PM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can't do the time
Can't pay the dime,
don't do the crime.

This whole privatization thing has got to stop. Privatizing prisons and probation is so wrong on many levels. It's just evil.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:54 PM on February 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh my god. This is the kind of thing that makes me want to ragequit humanity and go live with some penguins.

In no sane world does it make any sense for any functional part of the justice system to be contracted out to for-profit companies. (By 'functional' I mean the parts of the system that actually administer justice; it might make a lot of financial sense to outsource IT, for example, or janitorial duties in courthouses. Support positions, not actual justice, as long as appropriate privacy safeguards are in place).

There's been so much news lately about this naked hate, this balls-out (and that's deliberate; it seems to be mostly men behind all this stuff) unadulterated utter despite. It is the systematic crushing of hope that your life can be better, that you can see a doctor if you need to, that if your child is sick you can get her help, that you are not condemned to a life of menial serfdom at the feet of your corporate masters.

That even if you've made a mistake you can redeem yourself.

It is the deliberate and systematic destruction of the American dream. For all I may rail against America-as-it-is-now, I quite like and admire the ideals the country professes to espouse: personal responsibility. The opportunity to every day, make your life incrementally better. The idea that, as Obama said after the second election:
the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.
That passage still gives me chills. I don't mind saying that it made me cry, because it was such a beautifully articulated vision of the American Dream, such a simple and concrete way to talk about what America is supposed to be. I believe in that dream. I believe that we as a global society work better when, as someone a lot smarter than I am said, you are judged by the content of your character.

I believe that when we sentence people who have committed offences against society to a lifetime of marginalization, we are telling people: You don't deserve a better life. You made one mistake, and now you are trash.

We'll even make you pay to be on probation.

This shit has got to stop. America, you can do better. Live up to your promise, please, because too many assholes around the world, from the UK to Canada to Australia, are following this terrible, terrible example.

We need to open our eyes to the idea of forgiveness. That society has, via its elected representatives, decided on certain punishments for certain acts--and once that punishment has been completed, it's over.

When we were kids and we were bad, our parents would send us to our rooms. They wouldn't--well, mostly, I guess--spend the next twenty years of our lives disallowing us anything we wanted to do because we took the heads off all our sisters Barbies.

That's what's happening now. One felony conviction and your life in the USA can functionally be said to be over (unless you go into politics or lobbying, sigh).

And now, living in a country that has a ruling elite taking its cues from the assholes seizing power in the USA, all I can think of is Lord of the Rings, with the USA as Gollum.

Like Frodo, I have to believe you can come back. Because if you, the people who wrote down in your most sacred document that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, if you can't come back, what hope is there for the rest of us?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:33 PM on February 6, 2014 [7 favorites]

Probation is "free-range" outdoors prison. If we are already awful enough to privatize indoor prisons, is this really such a surprise?
posted by oceanjesse at 6:02 PM on February 6, 2014

Maybe instead of something like obligatory "national service" like some countries have, we can have "obligatory prison sentence" where "laws-and-values" voters can experience first-hand just what they are voting for.
posted by maxwelton at 7:19 PM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

So we've got that going for us. Which is nice. I'm so sick of reason and enlightenment being defeated by cartoonish villains.
posted by ob1quixote at 8:46 PM on February 6, 2014

I just learned from a long post on Reddit today that the smart use of a lawyer is to negotiate for a few extra weeks or months in jail in exchange for avoiding a few years of probation because of this and other problems with it. It's ironic because one gets the impression that getting probation instead of jailtime is a popular goal, and sentencing reform seems to trend towards favoring probation.

It seems like awareness of the problem is increasing and hopefully that will lead to reform.
posted by michaelh at 1:12 AM on February 7, 2014

Wow. Probation is "Kafkaesque, yo" enough when it's run by public institutions. I guess offenders exist to be squeezed, not rehabilitated...
posted by pianoblack at 7:13 AM on February 7, 2014

To be fair, privatization works great for ... okay, give me a minute here ....

Plutocrats? Oligarchs?
posted by TedW at 8:48 AM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Even when probation is not privatized, the problem still exists. Monthly fees are charged by the Department of Corrections and collected before fines or restitution. So a person can reach the end of their probationary period and have probation extended because they haven't met conditions of discharge, i.e. payment of fines and restitution, since their payments have been eaten up by probation fees. I see it happen all the time, and it bugs me.

Technically, probation cannot be extended if non-payment is the only issue, but without an attorney to make the inability-to-pay argument, the judge will most likely accept the state's lack-of-good-faith-effort argument and extend. Pro se defendants usually just sit there like lambs to the slaughter, unaware that they have any defense at all. Why doesn't the judge raise it herself? Once in a while one does, but I imagine they fear being labeled as activists.
posted by probably not that Karen Blair at 9:17 AM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

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