I just finished reading a June 23 New Yorker magazine article, “Get Out of Jail, Inc.,” exposing on the crushing problems created by the private probation services which are thriving along with the private prison industry. The article references an important but perhaps overlooked February report from Human Rights Watch, cataloguing the lack of transparency in these services, across the South in particular.
This 72-page report describes how more than 1,000 courts in several US states delegate tremendous coercive power to companies that are often subject to little meaningful oversight or regulation. 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. In some of these cases, probation companies act more like abusive debt collectors than probation officers, charging the debtors for their services.
The New Yorker article tells many sad stories, including one mother who couldn’t find parking near her home because of construction street closing. She got a few parking tickets she couldn’t afford and was eventually arrested and placed in one these coercive probation programs. Under constant threat of being re-arrested and taken to jail (and away from her children and grandchildren whom she cared for) unless she brought cash to the probation center on weekly basis. These services charge very poor people not only their initial debt but large administration fees to maintain these services so as not be jailed. This mother, who initially owed just a few hundred dollars, was eventually dunned over $4000 which she definitely couldn’t pay.
If one of their clients requires electronic monitoring, the fees for surveillance are even higher, and the debtor becomes responsible for all of it.
Citing tighter and tighter municipal and state budgets, the use of these third-party probation services has skyrocketed despite their draconian tactics. So they save money in their budgets by not jailing or putting on probation their own citizens (their job), and instead farm them out to these third-party corporations, both parties profiting on the backs of poor people. Corporations are in the business of making lots of money, no matter who is exploited.
We have written about the scourge of the private prison industry and these probation service companies extend this same conflict of interest. These corporations profit through their inhumane and coercive system. Like the private prison industry, they lobby public officials to their own benefit, and government fails its own citizens by relinquishing its responsibility to do what tax payers have asked them to do.
We urge you to read the full report, and if you can get it the June 23 New Yorker article by Sara Stillman. It will make you want to get off your couch and do something to end these practices.