The Covert $40 Million Business That We Desperately Need to Talk About

Three men dressed in black walking down the road towards a white car

In 21st century America, people are being punished and thrown in jail for being poor. It happens with an increasing number of non-violent offenders for a reason that is largely flying under the radar: Private probation companies add excessive fees to probation that low-income offenders simply can't afford.

While everyone's heard of private prisons, this is one aspect of our changing criminal justice system that deserves equal scrutiny, but often doesn't get it. That needs to change.

Meet Thomas Barrett, a destitute Georgian living primarily off food stamps. In 2012, he was arrested for stealing a $2 can of beer from a convenience store. He was fined $200 by the court and sentenced to probation with Sentinel Offender Services, a major player in the booming for-profit private probation industry. To raise the money, Barrett sold his own blood plasma twice a week, but the fees multiplied to $1,000, which was more than his total income. As he couldn't pay, he was ultimately thrown in jail three times.

Despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that offenders can't be jailed when they aren't able to pay their fines, a growing number of poor, low-crime offenders are serving time for minor offenses like traffic tickets and drunkenness as they can't keep up with the multiplying fees.

Here is how it works: Every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans are sentenced to probation with private companies by more than 1,000 courts across the U.S., especially in the South. Low-level courts use private companies to oversee probation requirements such as monitoring, drug tests and fine collection.

Privatized probation is becoming a huge business. Take Georgia, for example. A report from Human Rights Watch estimates that private probation companies make nearly $40 million in fees a year in Georgia alone. Sentinel Offender Services received $160,000 in federal contracts alone last year, according to public records.

The courts save money because they don't pay the private probation companies for their services — the private probation companies get the power to charge enormous fees to the people they supervise. The longer it takes offenders to pay off their debts, the more they pay in supervision fees.

In other words, the less money you have, the more you will pay. Low-income offenders can end up paying more than twice the amount in fees to their probation company than they were originally sentenced to pay in fines by the court. If they can't pay the fees, the probation companies can get judges to issue arrest warrants.

Image Credit: Human Rights Watch

Does any of this evoke pictures of a dark chapter in American history or of Victorian England on Charles Dickens' time? Well, these modern-day debtors' prisons are a growing phenomenon. Civil liberties advocates worry that in this era of shrinking budgets, courts and prisons will get more aggressive about forcing indigent defendants to pay costs and fees and imprison more of them if they can't pay the money.

The courts are meant to make a financial assessment before jailing someone for not paying off his debt, but increasingly, that responsibility is handed off to private probation officers who have a financial incentive to collect as much money as possible. In fact, some probation companies offer their employees bonuses based on the amount of fees they collect.

Low-income, non-violent offenders like Barrett, who stole a $2 can of beer, get caught up in a Kafkaesque system of debt collection and incarceration, but American taxpayers are paying a bill, too: We pay for locking up non-violent offenders who are of no threat to society. Not only do these modern-day debtors' prisons wreck the argument of saving money by using private probation companies, they also have devastating human costs and undermine the criminal justice system.

In Georgia, the state Supreme Court is expected to consider, later this year, whether courts contracting with private probation companies is constitutional. In the meantime, Human Rights Watch recommends strong government oversight, complete transparency of the amount of fees that private probation officers collect from offenders and that courts — not private for-profit companies — determine whether an offender can afford to pay. 

The government should be helping people on the edge of society, not throwing them in jail for being poor. We desperately need better safeguards.