Preying on the Poor: For-Profit Probation Edition

Welcome to Alabama, the state of the never-ending seat belt ticket.

Hali Wood is 17. She's applied to work at several grocery stores in her home town of Columbiana, but none are hiring. A few months back, cops ticketed Hali for not wearing a seat belt. The fine: $41. Hali has paid $41 and then some, but she's still hundreds of dollars in debt. Why? Because the court contracts with JCS, a for-profit probation company that forces Hali to choose between paying their exorbitant fees and going to jail.

Here's how the scheme works:

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Borrowing from the payday lender playbook, companies like JCS often sign contracts in cities and counties strapped for cash. For the county, the deal seems like a sweet one: The company will collect outstanding court debts for free and make all their profits from charging probationers fees. But the problem is that many of these people were put on probation because they were too poor to pay their fine in the first place and for them, the additional fees are huge. People find themselves scrambling for money they don't have and forgoing basic necessities to avoid being thrown behind bars for missing a payment. The impact on communities, especially low-income communities of color, is devastating.

Sadly, the for-profit probation business is booming. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people are sentenced to probation, often for misdemeanors including unpaid parking tickets. Instead of being able to just pay those fines and move on with their lives, many get sucked into spiraling debt traps they cannot escape. There are hundreds of thousands of people like Hali out there, for whom small court fines have ballooned into hundreds of dollars of debt.

The for-profit probation racket isn't benefiting society; it's only benefiting these companies' bottom line. We need to remember two things: 1) If probationers miss a payment and end up behind bars, taxpayers foot the bill for this imprisonment; and 2) Our communities are not better off when we force people in poverty to choose between their liberty and putting food on their table —and needlessly lining the pockets of for-profit probation companies in the process.

Counties and courts do not need to contract with these debt collectors on steroids. Publicly run probation exists, and it works while doing much less damage to communities. It's time to urge courts to cut their ties with the for-profit probation industry.

Check out the rest of our new video series, To Prison for Poverty, which was produced in partnership with Brave New Films. The series takes a close look at two for-profit probation companies in Alabama and Georgia making bank off those least able to pay.

Learn more about the rise of modern-day debtors' prisons here.

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Anonymous

I have faced the probation game, although the county I was in did not use these tactics there were others used like sending you to probation ordered substance abuse, anger management and worse "therapies" or "counseling" programs which were 'for profit' and though the county official that did the initial determination replied to the probation officer that I did not need any of this, this official was order to do a reevaluation in which she honestly told me, if she did not follow what the probation officer wanted and order me to attend these therapies and counseling that her job was in jeopardy because her offices depended on the probation office referrals and she was just threatened with job loss if the therapies were not ordered. This I was put through a year of hell for profit. I highly recommend to anyone out there strictly obey the laws in a North Central Wisconsin as well unless you too wish to be a victim of this kind of inside oat my back and I'll pat yours wink wink profit motive , where the cops, courts, probation offices, counselors are all in on the gane, making peoples lives miserable and destroying families to line their pockets.

Anonymous

Not surprising here in Decatur,Ga in South DeKalb county, it's
a major ticket hub your can't get them to stop the prostitution you witness over and over, but they will ticketed you these outrageously high tickets then you can't afford to pay so you go on probation which is racket in its self. They are showing other counties how to do the same. Not to mention if your late paying your car insurance you get a late fee by your insurance company and then one by the state. You can't fight the courts because you can have evidence that the officer is wrong, but the judge seems to always side with them. I'm hoping and praying for investigation because I believe the county and state are double dipping.

Anonymous

I absolutely abhor anything, from the privatized foster care system to the privatized prison system to probation and parole being for profit or being privatized. It cause supply and demand and it hurts the taxpayers in the long run clogs the courts, and takes the police off the streets booking people for non violent criminal activity. what a waste.

Anonymous

I thought the Supreme Court set down case law making these practices illegal?

Linda Chambers

This should be illegal. It is WRONG. Shameful that those who govern us should stoop so low.

Anonymous

This country has sunk so low, I am almost ashamed to call myself a US citizen. A revolution is overdue!

Anonymous

my family has fallen victim to some of these situations as well. being told you need counseling and the counselor saying you don't but we have to do what the parole officer says, paying an administrative fee to be on paper. the thing that bothers me most is the whole belief that once you pay the price for what you did it's over & you can move on. First of all if you have to be represented by a public defender in our town you might as well go to the jail and lock yourself up. we were told they don't have the budget for anything but the attorney so if there were any other costs we would have to pay them and that if we could do some of the leg work it would help. then at court there were 2 jurors sleeping and the prosecutor showed what they said was a pic of our car which I could see from 20 feet back that there was no way because the car in the pic had both headlights on and we were hit so hard it drove the engine in so far it almost touched the front seat and the driver's side headlight was broken. what do you do? sex offenders get less time than dui homicide especially if the guy found guilty of dui is a cop. it's a horror story all over the country and all driven by greed!

Anonymous

Maybe the poor can declare open season on those people who operate predatory systems like this ?

Anonymous

If you had $10 on you to pay for the probation start-up fee, you could have found the other $31 to just pay the ticket.

Anonymous

My daughter is in the same mess in Georgia. Georgia is the worse state that I have ever been too. She has been in a legal nightmare for months now. currently they are holding her on a probation violation, she was charged a felony for having 1/2 a muscle relaxer found in her car. This pill was a prescription of her boyfriend who lives with her. We have provided proof but the charge has not been dropped yet.
During her incarceration she had a court date for a bounced check, she had lost her job and bounced a check for car tags. The check was for $190 they now want $430. I had to beg Bibb county to extend her court since she was in jail. The lady did move it but said if it is not paid by her new court date she will be put on probation. If she misses her court date they will put a warrant out for her arrest. Since she is on probation this will be another violation if this is not resolved.

Here is the major problem, the county where they charged with the pill let her out when I paid her bond. They were suppose to transfer to the county she is on probation. I had her lawyer call the probation officer and tell her my daughter was released and could he get a court date to answer to the violation. The PO acted as if my daughter was trying to pull a fast one, said she wasn't suppose to be released and she knew where she was and wouldn't let her hide out. I'm sorry how is she hiding???? They released her, was she supposed to beg to stay in jail ? They made the clerical error not my daughter. She was told to turn herself in and she would go easy on her and speed things up. She turned herself in and she is just sitting. In the mean time my daughter has lost her new job, her apartment and her car was repossesed. I had to take her dogs.
If they don't get her released by the 13th of august then the county with the bounced check will issue a warrant for failure to appear , they don't care if she is locked up and can't get to court in another county. Then she will get a another probation violation.
In the meantime she is required to pay $89 amonth for being on probation and when she was locked up the first time and missed her payment the PO violated her for that also. How is suppose to pay if she is locked up???? I have been paying the fine each month since then. Other people don't always have a mom that can or will pay so they would sit in jail and get in more trouble and more fees for being late on their fines. It is a crazy vicious cycle.

My only choice regarding the bounced check is to pay it before the 13th of August. I will have to take it out of my rent money but I just can't have them violate her again.

I have spent alot of money on phone calls. a lawyer, a fine to be on probation (why am I paying a fine to be on probation if you have her locked up-she doesn't report to anyone) commissary to buy essentials. I live out of state so she has to be able to call me so I can communicate what the lawyer says. He can't go see her where she is at because she is now 3 hours away from where she originally was. I don't have much money thank God my mom helps.

I am all for punishement but this is insane. They could have given her a court date to answer her non-violent probation violation offense. Why do you need to be incarerated at tax payers expense, unless someone misses a court date, which she has never done. Had tehy just given her a court date She could have kept working her new job she would have had the bounced check paid off, she woud have her home and car. She has never been in trouble until she moved to Georgia, now she has lost everything and we are out $1000's of dollars.

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