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

“Anyone who claims they can’t pay is assumed to be lying,” Albin-Lackey said.

This leaves Long seething.

“It is unconstitutional for any person to have an economic interest in the criminal justice system,” Long said. “We don’t pay judges based on the percent of fines they impose, or police officers based on the number of tickets they issue. This shouldn’t be any different.”

Albin-Lackey said a lack of oversight by US courts and an insufficient — or in some states non-existent — regulatory framework have left the system “prone to abuse.”

That has landed the companies, ironically, in the courts to defend themselves. Sentinel has been the target of several Georgia lawsuits alleging abusive practices linked to fine collection, according to Georgia court documents.

Judicial Correction Services has also been named in several lawsuits.

Human Rights Watch said the employees of those two companies “were responsible for some of the most serious allegations” in its investigation of for-profit probation abuses.

Both companies told Human Rights Watch they have “zero tolerance” for abuses like strong-arming the poor into paying.

Long alone has filed more than a dozen civil lawsuits against Sentinel, which works with several courts in the state. Each time, he has argued that it is unconstitutional to jail someone for being poor.

In each case, company officials argue that they have not broken the law because only courts have the authority to issue arrest warrants.

Sentinel spokeswoman Ann Marie Dryden said that the company is committed to helping the offenders it supervises fulfill the terms of their probation and leave the criminal justice system.

“We believe some of the circumstances highlighted focused solely on the financial aspect of probation and failed to recognize other non-financial conditions that were present,” Dryden said.

Sentinel says it helps offenders meet the court-ordered terms of their probation, which they might otherwise miss. It also offers guidance, after-hours assistance and English-as-a-second-language classes, according to its Web site.

Judicial Corrections Services, which counts US$13 million in revenue, brags that it helps probationers meet the terms of their court agreements 70 percent of the time, compared to about 30 percent without monitoring.

The probation companies do have defenders, as well as enemies.

Athens-Clarke County chief probation officer Dale Allen in Georgia has worked for both the private and public probation sector.

Allen said that it is unfair to judge for-profit probation companies as inherently bad.

“I’ve seen it from the inside,” he said. “There are good folks and there are bad folks.”

Yet there is no question the for-profit probation industry could use a cleanup.

The issue is gaining such steam that the Georgia Supreme Court is expected to weigh in on the constitutionality of courts contracting with private probation companies later this year.

Dryden said Sentinel is not opposed to certain industry reforms.

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