THE BLOG
09/29/2016 10:22 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2017

How Private Probation Perpetuates Debtors' Prisons

There might be an industry more appalling than the payday lenders who trap low-income Americans into high-interest loans they know can never be repaid.

It turns out, private probation companies do much the same thing - except they can also have you arrested, and placed in jail on the public dime.

It works like this:

You're hit with a minor infraction, like a driving violation. But like millions of Americans, you don't have the couple hundred bucks demanded by our underfunded court systems. So your case is handed over to a debt collection company that allows you to pay in installments with tidy monthly fees, of course, which have an unsurprising tendency to multiply. Fail to pay, and this "private probation" company threatens to have you arrested - a private company, with little or no judicial oversight, acting with the force of law.

Take Thomas Barrett. He was fined $200 for stealing a $2 beer, but didn't have the cash (if he did, he probably would have purchased the beer in the first place!). According to Human Rights Watch, his case was turned over to a private probation company. Fees ballooned the amount Thomas owed to over $1,000, and despite selling his blood plasma to keep up he was eventually jailed.

Or, consider the case of a middle-aged woman in Mississippi who was fined $377 for driving without a valid license. Her case was turned over to a private company who threatened to have her jailed over $500 in unpaid "supervision" fees. She worked nights at a local gas station in order to pay her bills. Desperate and in tears, she called the court - only to discover that she had already paid off her original fine - and the court had in no way authorized the company to threaten her with arrest.

Or Kevin Thompson, a teenager in DeKalb County, Georgia, who spent five days in jail because he could not afford to pay his court fines and probation company fees.

After being pulled over for a minor traffic offense, Kevin appeared before a judge who fined him more than $800. Kevin could not afford to pay the fine that day, so he was placed on "probation" and the collection of his fees was turned over to a private company, where additional collection fees were added. Though he paid as much as he could, Kevin couldn't pay off his balance in time and was forced to appear before the judge again. He was then sentenced to 9 days in jail.

According to the ACLU:

The jail was cold and dirty, and Kevin didn't have enough to eat. He felt ashamed and scared. He wanted to pay what the court ordered, but he just couldn't afford it.

Kevin's story became the basis for a federal lawsuit challenging debt collection practices in Dekalb County, Georgia. The case was settled less than two months after it was filed and resulted in a few improvement to the county's court system to protect the rights of people who cannot afford to make fine and fee payments.

How did we arrive at a point where unsupervised, unaccountable private companies are using our courts and police to pad their pockets?

Austerity budgeting across the country has left courts horribly underfunded, leading to over-reliance on fines and fees to make ends meet. Overwhelmed with people facing minor misdemeanor charges and owing money, courts have increasingly turned to private probation companies that make their money by extracting fees from down-on-their-luck Americans.

These companies promise to provide the same services as public probation, but at zero cost to taxpayers.

It couldn't be further from the truth.

First, private companies have every incentive to keep people under probation for as long as possible. The company can assign various fees along with the terms of probation, such as drug testing and monitoring. On average, extra fees add 40 percent to the original price of a ticket. If you cannot pay, the company can keep you under "probation" long after the legal probation time has passed.

Second, this system creates an extrajudicial, alternate legal system with profits as the only guide of right and wrong. Some judges assign companies to prepare arrest warrants, and sign these warrants without reading - much less scrutinizing - them. Eager to extract the maximum amount of money, probation companies can also threaten people with jail for petty crimes that would not merit jail time in the first place. The result is a breeding ground for corruption: In Tennessee, a judge was found guilty of taking huge bribes from a private probation company to look the other way.

Finally, and most crucially: Nothing about this system comes at "zero cost." All we've done is shift the burden of funding our legal system from the broad public to those who can least afford it - while allowing money-making middlemen to take a massive cut with abusive collection techniques, from threatening incarceration without a judge's approval to extorting family members to pony up cash. Worst of all, even if someone has paid their debt to court, private probation companies can have people placed in public jails, at taxpayer expense, to recoup their own fees.

There is hope.

In a number of states, local governments are figuring out that the costs outweigh the misleading promises. More than 70 municipalities in Alabama have severed ties with Judicial Correction Services, a private probation company, after the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that their tactics essentially amounted to extortion.

Last year in Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal signed legislation, as part of his long-term overhaul of the state's criminal justice system, that finally began to regulate and add transparency to the state's private probation industry. In Georgia, traffic crimes are treated as criminal offenses and more people are indebted to private probation companies than any other state. More than 30 private probation companies oversee as many as 300,000 cases.

House Bill 310, which passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority, placed a cap on the length of "pay only" probation and abolished the practice of jailing people too poor to pay their fines. New transparency measures were also added, forcing companies to lift the veil on how many people they are supervising and their total collection of fees and fines. Judges were also given the ability to substitute community service in lieu of fees or fines and a new department was created to regulate the probation industry.

Georgia's bill is a model for other states to follow but is a far cry from the many states where private probation companies operate without limits. While people are still facing jail time without court orders, in order to pad the pockets of a private company, there is more we must do.

For starters, we need better transparency and oversight.

Governments need to force private probation companies to record and disclose the fees they assign, and give probationers channels to communicate abuses. Courts must exercise strong oversight. Arrest warrants should be thoroughly vetted, and complaints of extortion must be taken seriously.

Our legislators need to step up, as well.

No state should permit private probation companies without clear rules guiding their behavior. Legislatures could prohibit some of the worst, most senseless fees altogether. They could also rewrite the incentives, recognizing that allowing companies to jail Americans costs everyone too much and rewarding those companies that rehabilitate and release people, instead.

But all this is just a start. Why not go to the root of the problem?

The fact is, the entire private probation model is fundamentally flawed. The entire concept is rooted in false promises and idealistic assumptions that have been exposed as a Wild West of abuse and corruption. Courts should recognize that everyone is better off with a system where defendants can pay in installments directly to clerks.

Private probation companies use our jails and our courts to trap Americans and pad their own pockets.

It's a penny-wise and pound-foolish solution, and it's long past time for our leaders to wise up and do something about it.

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This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and #cut50 on Fees and Fines in the American criminal justice system. Two hundred years ago, the United States abolished debtors prisons but a new wave of monetary sanctions is bringing back the practice.

This series aims to shine light on the activists, lawmakers and community members working to end a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration perpetuated by Fees and Fines. Some funding for #cut50 is provided by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation but #cut50 maintains full editorial autonomy. The views expressed in this post are those of the author. For more information visit here cut50.org/feesandfines