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What Is For-Profit Probation? Is It Legal?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

You may have heard the phrase 'for-profit prisons' in reference to private prison companies contracting with state and local governments to detain convicts. You may have also heard that this arrangement can lead to some perverse incentives on the part of private companies, whose profits are tied to the number of people in prison.

What you may not have heard about is for-profit probation, whereby private companies monitor offenders, charge them for the privilege, and can even petition that they be sent to jail if they can't pay. This system can also lead to a perverse set of incentives, which is why the American Bar Association is asking that it be abolished.

Debt Cycle

Human Rights Watch reported that over 1,000 U.S. courts work with private probation companies, tasking them with monitoring several hundred thousand misdemeanor offenders. Unlike private prisons, which are funded by the state and local governments, private probation companies "charge their fees directly to the probationers." And because many of these offenders are on probation merely for the inability to pay fines and court costs, they often have a hard time paying their probations costs as well.

According to John R.B. "Jack" Long, a Georgia lawyer who moved the ABA's resolution against privatized probation and has successfully sued private probation companies in the past, these probation fees aren't even going to the original court costs and fines, but straight to the private company instead. "The system is designed to sell as many probation services as possible," he told the AP. "For each service they sell, they make a profit."

"Cash Register Justice"

And if a probationer can't pay? The probation company can petition the court for the probationer's arrest. A company probation officer in Georgia allegedly admitted she routinely has offenders arrested for non-payment and then bargains with their families for money in exchange for the person's release.

"It's not supposed to be about the money," Rutherford County Tennessee Sheriff Robert Arnold told the AP. "The unfortunate part of our judicial system is once you get caught up in it, it's like a rat wheel you can never get out of because of some of the fines and the probation." (Incidentally, Sheriff Arnold is facing a 14-count federal indictment for his role in profiting from the sale of JailCigs to inmates.)

Probation, and the attendant restrictions and costs, can be tough to face no matter what, and it can be even tougher when it's a private company acting as a debt collector. If you need help meeting your probation obligations, or if you believe they are unfair or illegal, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney today.

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