Lots of people know about the existence of private prisons but private probation is an equally terrible idea with equally unjust results. The Economist’s Democracy in America blog takes a look at how private probation companies pile fees and penalties on those on probation and pass the cost on to taxpayers.
Even worse, people who fail to pay the fines imposed by these private companies can find warrants for their arrests sworn out and the period of their probation extended. I spoke with an attorney for a couple in Alabama who say they were threatened with Tasers and the removal of their children if they did not pay the company what they owed. In 2012 a court found that the fees levied by private-probation companies in Harpersville, Alabama, could turn a $200 fine and a year’s probation into $2,100 in fees and fines stretched over 41 months. A judge in Richmond and Columbia counties ruled such probation extensions illegal last autumn.
Not surprisingly, private-probation firms have been hit with a raft of lawsuits. Many have criticised these companies for bringing back debtors’ prisons by jailing people unable to pay privately-imposed fines, in direct violation of Bearden v Georgia, a Supreme Court case from 1983 that found that jailing someone for nonpayment of fines due to an inability to pay (rather than willful withholding of funds) violates the Equal Protection clause. The judge in the Harpersville ruling called that town’s private-probation practices “a debtors’ prison” and “a judicially sanctioned extortion racket.” The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is looking into allegations that the company illegally added fees. Later this year Georgia’s supreme court will decide whether private-probation firms can force probationers to take and pay for classes, and whether they can order arrests when fees go unpaid.
Private probation companies promised they could do as well or better than the state at supervising misdemeanants, for less cost to the taxpayer. In many cases those promises have proven hollow. The AJC tells the story of Kathleen Hucks, who was walking her dogs on Memorial Day when a policeman stopped to speak with her, and found that she owed a private-probation company $156 from her probation four-and-a-half years ago. Although her probationary period had long since ended, she was thrown in jail (at a cost taxpayers of more than $1,000) until her husband could raise the $156 Ms Hucks owed. Clifford Hayes was arrested over a years-old $847 private-probation debt, over which he was threatened with eight months in prison, also at a far greater cost to the taxpayer than what he owed. As for supervision, attorneys I spoke with for my article said that it often amounts to little more than stuffing cash into a private-probation company’s payment kiosk in a county courthouse.
So in essence, a private company is able to use the government’s exclusive ability to arrest and detain people that owe them money because they kept adding late fees and penalties to debts they knew people couldn’t pay, with taxpayers having to foot the bill for it.