On Thursday, an Augusta, Ga., judge issued the latest rebuke against a private probation firm that is holding poor individuals criminally responsible for their failure to pay fees. This time, Sentinel Offender Services had held open an arrest warrant on an individual whose probation term for reckless driving had expired two years earlier. When William Stephen Carter was pulled over for speeding, he was arrested and put in jail for allegedly owing court fines and probation fees. Carter says he already paid all his fees, but he could not get out of jail until he paid the $655 Sentinel said he owed.
The case is one of many challenging this perverse jailing of the poor after they fail to keep up with mounting fees on offenses like rolling through stop signs and public drunkenness. In Georgia, a law passed in part through bribes and corruption that later landed a public official in jail authorizes every county to hire its own private probationers. Georgia is also the only state in which traffic violations are criminal infractions. The result is a dangerous system in which private probation firms are using every means they have to extract funds from low-level offenders, including jail time. NBC News explained the system in a 2012 report:
In most cases, the system works like this: A person is issued a summons for a relatively minor crime, such as speeding, driving with a suspended license or public intoxication. Upon conviction, those who can pay the fine at once usually are done with the Georgia justice system. But in Richmond County, where Census data show nearly a quarter of its population of about 200,000 live in poverty, and others, many cannot pay in full.
Those who can’t are put on private probation. For an additional monthly fee of between $25 and $45, they can pay the fine over the duration of their probation term.
Probationers may also find themselves responsible for additional costs, such as a one-time “start-up” fee of $15, a daily fee of $7 to $12 for electronic monitoring, a $25 photo fee required for DUI convictions, among others.
Adding to the cost, defendants in Georgia must pay $50 to the court to apply for a public defender, though the judge can waive the fee if a defendant is unable to pay.
Under Georgia law, an indigent person cannot be jailed for inability to pay a fine, unless the refusal is willful. But critics say neither courts nor probation companies make an effort to determine ability to pay. Instead, they say, companies routinely use the threat of jail against probationers for failing to pay not only court fines, but the private fees generated by what is known as “offender-funded supervision.”
Even though the lawsuits challenging this practice are pouring in, individuals are still fighting these battles one at a time, and they frequently don’t even have access to a free lawyer to defend them against minor infractions like traffic violations. Even those who do eventually win their case are often held in jail in the interim. In another lawsuit, a man living on monthly veterans benefits of $243 a month was fined $270 for public drunkenness and put on probation. The company charged an additional $15 per month and $39 a month for the privilege of paying monthly installations. Over the period of a year, that cost amounted to $700, and the man was ultimately jailed for failure to pay.
This criminal justice “debt” problem does not only affect individuals on private probation. But private probation services, like private prisons, make money off criminalizing conduct, and have an incentive to lobby for policies that land more people on probation and/or in jail. In fact, Georgia’s private probationers law passed after a private probation company paid the head of the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles $75,000 to lobby for the law. That official was eventually convicted of public corruption, but the law he backed remains on the books. Thanks in no small part to that law, probation firms can and do threaten their debtors with jail when they do not pay — a power debt collectors normally do not have. Moreover, the state House of Representatives is poised to take up a bill next year that would expand the power of private probationers to operate with limited court oversight.