Wed, Mar 12, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Jailed for being poor in the US

Many poor Americans face jail when they cannot pay steep fines for nonviolent crimes, like US$1,000 for stealing a US$2 beer, which is fueling a booming for-profit probation industry

By Lauren Gambino  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain people

In January last year, Clifford Hayes, a homeless man suffering from lupus and looking for a night off the streets, walked into a US 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 had not committed a crime — or at least, he had not in many years, since 2007, when he committed several driving-related misdemeanor offenses, for which he pleaded guilty and was put on probation. That probation left him US$2,000 in debt for US 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 US$854 to the court to avoid a jail sentence; because he had no money except a US$730-a-month disability check, he was thrown in Richmond County lockup.

The cost to taxpayers of Hayes’ eight-month jail sentence: US$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 cannot afford to pay their fines, an increasing number of poor, low-level offenders are doing time because they cannot keep up with fees they owe to US 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 US.

“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.

States sign up with private probation companies in the hopes of saving money. Misdemeanor offenders are rarely hardened criminals; they crowd US 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 US government: at a price to states and counties of about US$50 per day per prisoner. In comparison, putting a nonviolent offender on probation costs, according to one estimate, only about US$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 US$40 million in fees a year.

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