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

“We believe some of the recommended changes outlined in this report could be beneficial to the industry and supported by Sentinel,” she said.

Allen, too, agrees with the Human Rights Watch report that the industry would benefit from greater transparency and clearer laws.

Among the recommendations, Human Rights Watch said states should require the probation companies to publish the amount of fees they collect from offenders.

The Human Rights Watch report also recommends, among other things, courts take the responsibility for determining if an offender can afford to to pay their fines — and to consider other punishments besides fines for low-income offenders who were too poor to pay the initial fine. It also suggests companies establish internal policies that aim to prevent employees from exercising abusive tactics to collect fees.

Allen prefers that some private probation companies continue to exist. Without these companies, he said, probation might not be an option for some cash-strapped towns and municipalities that do not have the money or resources to supervise low-level offenders.

“If you wipe [private probation companies] out with the stroke of a pen ... then you’re forcing every town and jurisdiction to make a decision whether they’re going to oversee probation or just throw people in jail,” Allen says.

However, without structural reform to privatized probation, US courts will continue to throw low-income, nonviolent offenders in jail — because the people who are poor and commit misdemeanors, simply cannot afford the high costs of going free.

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