by David M. Reutter
In a January 2022 report by the Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC), a national hub for the movement to reform criminal justice fines and fees, researchers documented the costs of private probation and found that “monetary sanctions…create substantial challenges for individuals on private probation.” The report examined cases in Georgia and Missouri and presented data.
Georgia authorized privatization of misdemeanor probation in 1991. Private companies enticed counties to use their services by offering contracts that shifted costs of probation to offenders. The firms referred to this as “offender-funded” or “user-pay” supervision.
Professional Corrections Services (PCS) obtained the first Georgia contract with Chatham County in 1992. “Under the contract,” said Ned Young of PCS, “Chatham pays us nothing, not one dime . . . We collect our money from the people on probation.”
The FFJC report found 24 private probation companies like PCS operating in Georgia counties and cities. The companies typically charge those with a misdemeanor conviction a start-up fee of $15 plus a daily fee of $7 to $12 for electronic monitoring; on top of that there is another “supervision” fee of $25 to $45 a month. In 2016, private probation companies in Georgia collected $121 million in fines, fees, restitution, and other payments from an economically vulnerable population.
Like Georgia, the state of Missouri passed legislation in 1992 allowing private probation as a cost-saving measure. Unlike Georgia, which has no cap on fees, Missouri sets a maximum monthly fee of $60. But the state has no oversight of its pay-for-probation program, while Georgia provides oversight through the state Department of Community Supervision.
FFJC researchers documented the case of a 40-year-old in a Missouri municipal court who told the judge that she was on disability, but a waiver of fees was not offered. Instead, she was responsible for $1,200 in supervision fees over her two-year probation sentence, plus costs associated with shoplifting classes, fines and court costs. Altogether this would likely total more than $2,000 – to be paid from a disability income. Court-ordered classes and 40 hours of community service also required a substantial time commitment.
In rural northern Georgia, Lynn Davis found out firsthand how predatory private probation works in 2018. She had minor traffic offenses for a broken taillight, an improper license tag, a failure to change her address within 60 days of moving, an insurance lapse, and driving with a suspended license. Some dated back to 2009.
Davis was jailed for these misdemeanor offenses, causing her to miss work and fall behind on her bills. When she appeared before Judge Robert Sneed, Davis owed $2,266 in court fines, an amount she could not afford. So, Sneed placed Davis on five years’ probation – the one-year maximum for each charge, run consecutively. But on top of her fines, Davis also now owed $44 monthly to Capitol Probation for supervision fees. That amounted to $2,649 over the 60 months of her probation, more than doubling what she owed.
“I couldn’t catch up,” Davis said, resulting in what she called a “domino effect.” Two weeks in jail put her behind on her weekly car payment, resulting in its subsequent repossession. With her mobility limited, it wasn’t long before her power was shut off after she missed an electric bill.
In 2015, the Georgia Legislature passed House Bill 310, a modest reform of the private probation system. It imposes a three-month cap for “pay-only” probation cases – those where a defendant is placed on probation because of inability to pay court fines. But in Municipal Court in the city of Clayton, where Davis’ case was adjudicated, every probation sentence issued since the law took effect at the beginning of July 2015 is designated “non ‘pay-only.’”
According to an October 2019 report by the Institute for Justice (IJ), Georgia ranked “most hospitable” among states to municipal “taxation by citation.” The report concluded that “not only do . . . (Georgia’s) laws do little to discourage reliance on fines and fees, but they also provide for the structures and mechanisms that allow such behavior to flourish.”
Clayton proves the point: In 2018, Davis was among 56 people sentenced to probation after they could not pay court fines. Not one defendant able to pay fines received a probationary sentence, however.
That same year, 24.8% of the city’s revenue came from fines and forfeitures. According to Governing, a magazine that covers state and local governments, Georgia had 52 localities that generated more than 20% of their revenue from court fines and forfeitures.
“The persistence of (such) fines and fees encourages policing for profit and keeps people trapped in poverty,” read a statement by the New York Civil Liberties Union advocating for passage of the End Predatory Court Fees Act by state legislators – a law that would repeal many mandatory fees and specifically prohibit probation fees. It also would bar any city or county from requiring probationers “to pay any fee, monitoring fee, testing fee, or screening fee to the local probation department with the responsibility of supervising the probationer.”
Under the proposed law, courts imposing a fine would be required to make an individual assessment of “the profit gained by the defendant’s conduct, whether the fine is disproportionate to the conduct in which the defendant engaged, the impact on any victims, and the defendant’s economic circumstances, including the defendant’s ability to pay, the effect of the fine on his immediate family or other persons to whom the defendant owes an obligation of support.”
The original bill, A2348B, died in the Codes Committee of the state Senate, where it was sent on January 5, 2022, and remained until the session expired. Reintroduced as S313 this year, it was again sent to the same committee on January 4, 2023. See: Private Probation Costs, Compliance and the Proportionality of Punishment: Evidence from Georgia and Missouri Fines and Fees Justice Center (2022).
Despite research, advocacy, and legislative efforts to reduce or eliminate the criminalization of poverty, private probation also persists in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi [See: PLN, Jan. 2014, p. 18].
Additional source: In These Times
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