Good News: You Got Probation, Not Jail. Bad News: You're Going to Jail Anyway

Private probation companies strap low-income offenders with endless penalties and fees.

(Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Feb 9, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly.

Clifford Hayes was destitute. Then his nightmare began: dealing with offender-funded probation.

Like many convicts, Hayes is poor, and he was sentenced to probation overseen by private companies who charge their fees directly to offenders.

On paper, that might sound like a good way to allow states to reduce costs. But in reality, the policy has gotten in the way of many convicts' rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

Last year, Hayes sought clearance at a police station to enter a homeless shelter in Augusta, Ga. Instead, he was arrested on an outstanding warrant for failure to comply with the terms of his probation (for DUI and minor traffic violation convictions from several years earlier). That mainly included his failure to pay more than $2,000 in fines and probation fees that had accumulated over years—fees that the then-homeless man, now living on disability benefits, still cannot afford to pay. Eventually he ended up behind bars—precisely the punishment that probation is meant to avoid.

“It’s a stressful situation. If I had the money to pay the probation fines, I would, but I can’t,” Hayes told TakePart by phone, his voice rising in frustration. “They kept charging me. They locked me up for three or four weeks.”

Hayes is one of 75 people interviewed in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi in 2013 who described similar abuses for the 72-page Human Rights Watch report released this week. More than 1,000 courts in several states, mostly in the South, have outsourced probation to private companies not subject to regulation or oversight, the report found.

These companies collect fees from probationers, many of them already lower-income, for their services, instead of from the public till.

U.S. misdemeanor courts, according to the report, sentence several hundred thousand people such as Hayes to probation when they can’t pay initial fees in court and place them under the supervision of for-profit companies for months or years at a time, saddling them with debt as part of a probation payment plan.

Most of the offenders are guilty of only misdemeanor violations such as driving without proof of insurance or shoplifting, the report found. They’re threatened with jail for failing to pay probation fees they can’t afford and then end up spending time behind bars anyway.

This, despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a person sentenced to probation can’t be jailed for failing to pay a fine if he or she is unable to do so.

One Georgia man cited in the report, Thomas Barrett, even turned to selling his blood to help pay monthly probation fees after being jailed for not paying more than $1,000 in fees to his probation company. Barrett's crime? He pleaded guilty to shoplifting a $2—yes, $2—can of beer and not being able to pay the initial $200 fine.

“One of the most striking things is people didn’t understand their rights were being violated in these situations,” says the report’s author, Chris Albin-Lackey. “That gets at the heart of what allows a lot of abusive practices associated with this to take place. People are not aware of legal practices to protect themselves. You shouldn’t get locked up over a fine you can’t afford.”

While the report doesn’t break out probationers by ethnic background, there’s no question, says Albin-Lackey, that minority communities in the South are hardest hit. Of those court cases looked at in the report, roughly 95 percent of people were lower income and also black, he says.

To make matters worse, a lack of public transportation in states such as Georgia makes it even more difficult for poor offenders, many without bank accounts, to travel to a distant probation office to pay fees, said Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Atlanta-based nonprofit law firm Southern Center for Human Rights.

“The burden is so great on a person already struggling,” she says. “This places unprecedented law enforcement responsibility on private companies. Their focus is profit, not public safety.”

While privatized probation companies make out like gangbusters—the report estimates that companies in Georgia alone take in at least $40 million in revenues from fees—the challenges for offenders such as Hayes often go from financial to emotional.

“It’s hurtful,” says Hayes. “They could help me, but they help nobody but themselves. They’re lining their own pockets with money.”