Human Rights Watch: U.S. for-profit probation tramples rights of the poor

Report shows that many people supervised by for-profit probation companies wouldn’t be on probation to begin with if they had more money.

New York (06 Feb. 2014) - According to a new report from Human Rights Watch,  U.S. courts sentence hundreds of thousand misdemeanor offenders to probation overseen by private companies that charge their fees directly to the probationers. Often, the poorest 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.

Profiting from Probation: America’s ‘Offender-Funded’ Probation Industry, describes how courts in several American states delegate tremendous power to companies that are subject to little 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.

Results in discrimination against the poorest

Probation companies operate on an “offender-funded” basis that is financially appealing to many courts and local governments. They offer to provide probation supervision for low-level, misdemeanor offenders at no cost to the taxpayer. Instead, their contracts stipulate that judges should order probationers to pay them various fees as a condition of their sentence of probation.

Companies refuse to disclose how much money they collect in fees from offenders under their supervision. It is estimated that, in Georgia alone, the industry collects a minimum of US$40 million in fees every year from probationers. 

Probation companies operate on an “offender-funded” basis that is financially appealing to many courts and local governments. They offer to provide probation supervision for low-level, misdemeanor offenders at no cost to the taxpayer. Instead, their contracts stipulate that judges should order probationers to pay them various fees as a condition of their sentence of probation.

Conflict of interest as company profits depend on ability to collect fees

Some courts are effectively delegating the responsibility of determining whether an offender can afford to pay fines and company fees to their probation companies. This is a clear conflict of interest because company profits, along with the quarterly bonuses of some company probation officers, depend entirely on their ability to collect fees.

Many offenders are guilty only of minor traffic violations. While these offenses often carry no real threat of jail time in and of themselves, a probationer who fails to keep up with payments on their fines, court costs, and company fees can be locked up.

More information

Human Rights Watch Profiting from Probation: America’s ‘Offender-Funded’ Probation Industry

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