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Privatized Probation 'Extortion' Scheme Targets Vulnerable, Poor

Human Rights Watch report shows world in which 'probation companies act more like abusive debt collectors than probation officers'

- Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer

(Hans Neleman/Getty Images)Private probation companies hired by U.S. courts are making millions of dollars off probationers who are increasingly caught in a web of penalty fees, debt collection, and further jail time in a booming and highly unregulated probation services scheme, a new report by Human Rights Watch revealed Wednesday.

According to the report, Profiting from Probation: America’s ‘Offender-Funded’ Probation Industry, local courts are hiring for-profit companies to supervise probation for low-level offenders. However, these private firms do not charge the courts for these services. The fees are instead extracted from the probationers they are in charge of.

If those fees, which often increase over time, cannot be paid, probationers are often sent to jail and the cycle continues all over again.

“Courts sentence several hundred thousand people to probation with private companies every year but many do almost nothing to guard against abusive practices,” said Chris Albin-Lackey, senior researcher on business and human rights for HRW. “Perversely, some of America’s poorest counties are golden business opportunities for the industry precisely because so many residents struggle to pay off their fines.”

"In many cases, the only reason people are put on probation is because they need time to pay off fines and court costs linked to minor crimes," according to HRW. "In some of these cases, probation companies act more like abusive debt collectors than probation officers, charging the debtors for their services."

As Al Jazeera America reports:

While private companies save the courts money by charging taxpayers nothing, and have been used for decades, they can make it harder for poor offenders to get back on their feet, according to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) study. In one case, a man resorted to selling his own blood to pay charges relating to a fine for stealing a solitary can of beer, according to the report.

“Many of the people supervised by these companies wouldn’t be on probation to begin with if they had more money,” said Albin-Lackey. “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.”

Meanwhile, the private probation firms are making millions of dollars from the arrangements. HRW estimates the industry collects at least $40 million a year in the state of Georgia alone.

The structure of these companies creates financial incentives for probation officers to extract high fees from the cases they supervise, said Albin-Lackey. “Their employees are the last people who should be entrusted with determining whether an offender can afford to pay company fees.”

Human Rights Watch conducted research in Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. "Numerous egregious cases," were uncovered "that illustrate the abuses related to outsourcing probation supervision as it is practiced today." Specific instances of abuse included:

  • In Augusta, Georgia, a man who pled guilty to shoplifting a US$2 can of beer and fined US$200 was ultimately jailed for failing to pay more than US$1,000 in fees to his probation company. At the time he was destitute, selling his own blood plasma twice a week to raise money.
  • In another Georgia town, a company probation officer said she routinely has offenders arrested for non-payment and then bargains with their families for money in exchange for the person’s release.
  • In Alabama, the town of Harpersville shut down its entire municipal court after a judge slammed the municipality and its probation company for running what he called a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”
  • The Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood, an impoverished community of 15,000, had more than 1,200 people on probation with the private firm Judicial Corrections Services as of August 2013. Many were guilty only of traffic offenses. The town’s municipal judge told Human Rights Watch that “maybe one or two” of those had warrants out for their arrest. The real figure was close to 300.

Watch HRW's video detailing the findings below:

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