U.S.

Probation companies hound poor offenders over debts

Human Rights Watch says private contractors levy fees, threaten arrest for nonpayment

A probation officer on Long Island takes a man into custody for a probation violation.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Firms contracted by U.S. courts to handle probation for misdemeanors are saddling the poor with high fees and hounding them like debt collectors, even arresting them or threatening to until they pay, according to a damning report released Wednesday.

While private companies save the courts money by charging taxpayers nothing, and have been used for decades, they can make it harder for poor offenders to get back on their feet, according to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) study. In one case, a man resorted to selling his own blood to pay charges relating to a fine for stealing a solitary can of beer, according to the report.

The study found that many courts leave the assessment of whether an offender is able to pay up to the private probation companies, some of which leverage the threat of jail time to extract fees.

This is despite a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that stated that offenders on probation cannot be jailed for failing to pay a criminal fine if they cannot afford to do so.

“Probation companies have a financial stake in every single one of the cases they supervise,” said Chris Albin-Lackey, senior researcher on business and human rights at HRW. “Their employees are the last people who should be entrusted with determining whether an offender can afford to pay company fees.”

Courts hire for-profit companies to supervise probation for low-level offenders because the companies do it at no cost to U.S. taxpayers. Rather than charge the courts, probation companies make their money by asking courts to approve certain fees to be collected directly from offenders as a condition of probation.

Criminal courts are often under financial pressure to fund all their own operations with fees and fines from offenders.

Studying for-profit probation companies that work with more than 1,000 courts in Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama — which together sentence several hundred thousand misdemeanor offenders to probation each year — the rights group observed a discriminatory trend that disproportionately affects poorer offenders.

“Many of the people supervised by these companies wouldn’t be on probation to begin with if they had more money,” Albin-Lackey said.

“Often, the poorer people are, the more they ultimately pay in company fees and the more likely it is that they will wind up behind bars.”

The companies do not disclose the amount they collect in fees, but HRW estimates that in Georgia alone, the industry collects at least $40 million a year.

And the offender-funded profit model is often disproportionately burdensome to the poorest probationers, who often resort to crime in the first place because of dire financial straits.

As with any condition of probation, a violation can also land the offender in jail. 

“Right now I’m struggling. That little money I got, before I get it it’s gone,” one probationer with Sentinel Offender Services in Georgia told HRW.

Sentinel Offender Services is described in the HRW report as one of the “major players” in the private probation industry. 

The report also mentions that a number of former probationers have accused Sentinel, which has its headquarters in California and operates extensively in Georgia, of refusing to accommodate their inability to pay hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of dollars in company fees. 

In fact, the report states, “probationers allege that company employees instead squeezed them as hard as they could for as much as they could get before turning to the courts to secure their arrest when they stopped paying.”

Sentinel spokeswoman Ann Marie Dryden told Al Jazeera in a statement that “some of the circumstances highlighted (in the HRW report) focused solely on the financial aspect of probation and failed to recognize other non-financial conditions that were present,” without elaborating further.

Sentinel went on to say that it was committed to looking at ways to “professionalize the industry, create accountability, and focus on best practices promoting success of the offender and an overall reduction in recidivism.”

“We believe many of the recommended changes outlined in this report would be beneficial to the industry and supported by Sentinel,” the statement read.

A judge in Harpersville, Ala., accused the municipal court system and the private probation company operating as its partner of running a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket,” HRW reported.

“They are misusing the court system to collect their fee,” Justice Court Judge James Straight, of Cleveland, Miss., told HRW. “They are using us as judges. I think they are after a fee, and that’s it.”

One particularly egregious case cited in the HRW report involved a man who pleaded guilty to shoplifting a $2 can of beer and was fined $200 — initially. Fees and failures to make payments spiked the probation company’s charge to more than $1,000 over time. The man was destitute, and was selling his own blood plasma twice a week to get by, according to the report.

A private probation officer in Georgia told HRW that she routinely had offenders arrested for failing to pay their fines so she could extract money from their families.

“Everyone wants their fees waived, but that’s what pays my bills. That’s what puts food on the table. That’s what keeps my light on,” she said.

Lisa Hancock of AD Probation Services told HRW that responsibility for payment of the criminal fine and all the extra fees added by her company falls squarely on the shoulders of the offender.

“It’s not our fault they’re indigent and owe hundreds of dollars due to court and probation fees. It’s not the court’s fault … It is the offender’s fault. I don’t care whether they’re rich or whether they’re poor, they have the right to decide whether to commit that crime or not,” she said.

AD Probation Services, which operates in Georgia, referred Al Jazeera’s request for further comment to a spokeswoman with the Private Probation Association of Georgia, who could not immediately be reached.

HRW’s Albin-Lackey told Al Jazeera that new probationers were instructed by several of these companies not to seek assistance from the courts themselves — they would not be able to help with probation-related questions.

When asked why the public was not more aware of the private probation industry, Albin-Lackey said it reflected “the fact that all this stuff takes place in the bottom rungs of the criminal justice system.

“There’s not a lot of public awareness about what goes on in that level of the system in general,” he said.

Philip J. Victor contributed to this report.

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