by Scott Grammer
The National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), a Boston-based nonprofit, released a report in March 2019 titled, “Commercialized (In)justice: Consumer Abuses in the Bail and Corrections Industry.” The 62-page report “discusses the growing problem of ‘commercialized injustice’ – consumer abuses perpetuated by companies profiting from the criminal legal system and mass incarceration.”
The NCLC report addresses industries that “profit from financial extractions from individuals based on their exposure to the criminal legal system.” It states, “The corrections industry operates for the primary purpose of maximizing profits for its owners – creating strong incentives to achieve new forms of monetary extraction in addition to shifting the burden of existing costs.”
The authors point out that many of these for-profit correctional businesses “have adopted a so-called ‘offender-funded’ model, whereby the costs of administering criminal legal functions are shifted from public budgets to individuals who have contact with the legal system. Companies have aggressively marketed their services to states and localities as a way not only to achieve costs savings for existing corrections functions – but also, in many cases, to generate new revenue streams through kickback payments.”
While government agencies may see savings, the savings do not come from increased efficiency in the provision of correctional services, which is often how these industries pitch themselves to the public. In fact, “total costs to communities are likely to be significantly higher under commercialization, due to the combination of industry profit-seeking and contractual arrangements that share proceeds between the private company and the state.”
As one example, the authors cite a case in which Tennessee’s Giles County reportedly teamed up with two private probation companies and “threatened people with arrest, jail time, and extended probation supervision simply because they were too poor to pay the various fines, fees, and surcharges that the companies demanded. Under this ‘user funded’ probation system, Giles County and the companies generated profits by extorting impoverished people through threats to jail them if they could not pay, or extending the length of their probation and thus increasing the probation fees charged.”
The report spotlights unusual and often unheard-of industries. For instance, the authors note that “companies have emerged to offer people who are suspected by retailers of criminal activity (typically shoplifting) the opportunity to avoid possible referral to law enforcement by paying hefty fees.” They also discuss other major for-profit corrections industries that the public may not know about or fully understand, including businesses that provide prison and jail communications, financial, commissary and healthcare services.
The body of the report lays bare a number of worrisome commonalities within the prison industrial complex that encourage abuses and financial exploitation, such as companies taking advantage of the threat of criminal charges combined with consumers’ lack of understanding of their rights. The hard part is not understanding the report’s detailed findings; rather, it’s how to address and fix the problems it identifies in our nation’s profit-driven criminal justice system.
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