Thrown in jail for being poor: the booming for-profit probation industry

Lauren Gambino (The Guardian) | March 3, 2014

In January 2013, Clifford Hayes, a homeless man suffering from lupus and looking for a night off the streets, walked into the sheriff’s office in Augusta, Georgia. It was a standard visit: he needed police clearance, a requirement of many homeless shelters, to stay overnight at the Salvation Army.

Hayes expected to go straight to the shelter. Instead, he was handcuffed and later thrown in jail. Hayes hadn’t committed a crime – or at least, he hadn’t in many years since 2007, when he committed several driving-related misdemeanor offenses, for which he pled guilty and was put on probation. That probation left him $2,000 in debt for court fines – and fees he was supposed to pay to a private company the state hired to monitor him until his probation ended. Hayes needed to pay $854 to the court to avoid a jail sentence; because he had no money except a $730-a-month disability check, he was thrown in Richmond County lockup.

The cost to taxpayers of Hayes’ eight-month jail sentence: $11,500, according to Georgia court documents.

Despite the fact that the US supreme court ruled in 1983 that offenders cannot be jailed when they can’t afford to pay their fines, an increasing number of poor, low-level offenders are doing time because they can’t keep up with fees they owe to courts and private probation companies. To some it resembles a variation on the old Victorian workhouses and debtors’ prisons, moved from Dickensian England to the modern United States.

“The Mr Hayes of the world may not be the greatest citizens in the country … but they do not deserve to be locked up,” said Georgia attorney Jack Long, who filed a habeas corpus petition on Hayes’ behalf. Long won Hayes’ early release from jail by arguing that Hayes was unlawfully incarcerated for being poor.

More than 1,000 low-level courts across the US rely on the so-called “offender-funded” probation model, signing contracts with for-profit companies that oversee probation requirements like monitoring, drug tests and fine collection. The decades-old, for-profit probation industry is deeply rooted in the south, and especially in Georgia, but courts in states as far-flung as Michigan, Montana and Washington have also embraced aspects of privatized probation.

$1,000 in probation fees for stealing a $2 can of beer

States sign up with private probation companies in the hopes of saving money. Misdemeanor offenders are rarely hardened criminals; they crowd county courts with nuisance cases like driving without a license and public drunkenness.

Throwing those nonviolent criminals in jail – especially when there are so many of them – gets expensive for cash-strapped states. Misdemeanor cases fill up jail cells with minor offenders who present no threat to society, but a great cost to the government: at a price to states and counties of around $50 per day per prisoner. In comparison, putting a nonviolent offender on probation costs, according to one estimate, only about $1.25 a day.

It costs even less when the states and counties hire private companies to monitor those on probation. Sentinel Offender Services and Judicial Corrections Services are the two big players in the industry, although there are a smattering of smaller companies.

Those companies make offenders pay for their own probation by charging them fees. It saves the states and counties a lot of money. It also makes the companies a lot of money: Human Rights Watch estimated that private probation companies in Georgia alone rake in nearly $40m in fees a year.

Read more at: http://www.dailynews.com/general-news/20140303/thrown-in-jail-for-being-poor-the-booming-for-profit-probation-industry

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