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

While states save and companies profit, the offenders pay a lot. There is no cap on the amount of fees a private company can charge minor offenders, and the longer the probation period, the higher the fees.

In some cases, the probation fees can add up to twice as much — or more — than the court-ordered fines.

Monthly rates for basic supervision range from an average of US$35 per month in Georgia to US$100 per month in Montana, Human Rights Watch says.

Costs for additional services, such as electronic monitoring or drug testing, can be staggering: GPS monitoring can cost between US$180 and US$360 per month; drug tests cost an average of US$25 a pop.

There’s the rub: Many of the poor who commit those misdemeanors get put on probation only because they cannot pay their court fines in the first place. Then they become increasingly unable to afford the probation fees that are piled on by private companies paid to oversee them, including fees for everything from basic supervision to drug tests.

The way the fees metastasize would put even payday lenders to shame.

Thomas Barrett, a former Georgia probationer, stole a US$2 beer, was fined US$200 by the court — and ended up owing more than US$1,000 to Sentinel Offender Services, the company supervising his probation.

He resorted to selling his own blood plasma twice a week to pay Sentinel, according to an account he gave to Human Rights Watch.

Some probation companies even offer their employees financial bonuses based on the amount of fees they collect, according to a deposition by a Sentinel official.

This encourages probation officers and supervisors to use aggressive tactics to squeeze probationers, and in some cases their family members, for money, Human Rights Watch said in a recent report.

And when probationers like Hayes fail to pay their fines and company fees, the companies can, and do, push law enforcement to arrest them. That leaves probationers with a stark choice: pay up or be locked up.

“Private probation companies have a really perverse financial incentive in each case,” said Chris Albin-Lackey, author of a recently released Human Rights Watch report titled Profiting from probation.

Employees behave more like “aggressive, muscular debt collectors” than probation officers responsible for administering justice, Albin-Lackey says.

Others have said that the courts are to blame for looking the other way.

Long, who represented Hayes, said local courts are equally responsible for the abusive industry practices that persist. Echoing findings in the Human Rights Watch report, Long said local courts happily accept their cut of the payments companies collect and turn a blind eye to their collection practices.

In 2012, Alabama judge Hub Harrington criticized Judicial Correction Services’ work for the Harpersville municipal court.

“One might ascertain that a more apt description of the Harpersville Municipal Court practices is that of a judicially sanctioned extortion racket,” the judge said.

“Most distressing is that these abuses have been perpetrated by what is supposed to be a court of law. Disgraceful,” Harrington added.

The courts are meant to make a financial assessment before jailing someone for not paying off his debts. Lately, that responsibility has been handed off to the private companies, which have an economic stake in determining if a person has the money to pay the fines. Companies rarely spend the time or effort to determine if an offender can pay off his debt to the court system.

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