Elvis Mann sat on the front porch of his white one-story home with half-a-dozen cousins and friends. His house faces a long back road in Childersburg, Alabama, a small town dotted with trailers and modest homes. Mann, a soft-spoken, African-American man in his 50s, is worried. Over the past two decades, he has racked up $8,928 in fines from Childersburg municipal court in connection with various misdemeanors. After two traffic violations in 2007, the court outsourced the collection of these fines to a for-profit probation agency, Judicial Correction Services (JCS).
For roughly six years, Mann regularly paid down this debt. His receipts show that many months he paid $100, although only $60 of this money went toward paying down his fine. The other $40 – an astronomical 40 percent of his total payment – landed in JCS’s coffers for the company’s monthly “supervision fee,” which it passes on to the people on probation. But then Mann’s wife, Rita, was laid off from her job. Mann used to work in construction but has been on disability since he hurt his back. Between disability and food stamps, he and his wife say they bring in slightly more than $13,000 a year, and Mann can no longer afford to pay off his debt, he said. He has fallen behind on payments and received a court summons. He is afraid that the court will throw him in jail if he can’t pay up.
He has reason to be afraid – it has happened before when he fell behind on his payments. The judge said that he’d throw Mann in jail if he didn’t pay $500 by the end of the day. His wife spent the afternoon frantically begging and borrowing money from members of their church congregation and was able to bring him home that night.
Every year, courts place hundreds of thousands of Americans on probation with private, for-profit companies. The practice is particularly widespread in Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, and Alabama, but occurs in at least 12 states.
Many of these people – people like Mann – are on “pay only” probation. This means that the only reason they are on probation is that they couldn’t afford to pay a court fine and were placed on a payment plan. For them, probation companies act like debt collectors.
The problem is some company probation officers’ abusive collection habits and the total lack of oversight by many courts. The companies’ fee structures inherently discriminate against the poorest, as the longer it takes to pay off one’s debt, the more of the firms’ fees they’ll pay. And often, the percentage of money that goes to the company rather than to the court is high. Even payday lenders offer better interest rates than Mann has been paying to the probation company.
When probation companies work together with local courts to issue arrest warrants for non-payment of fines, it’s hard not to think of the old-time debtors’ prisons.
In 1983, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brearden v. Georgia that someone sentenced to probation may not be automatically incarcerated for failing to pay a fine that they genuinely cannot afford.
So how did we get here?
Many cash-strapped counties depend on the money local courts bring in through fines for misdemeanors – like speeding or public drunkenness – to make up for what counties can’t, or won’t, raise through taxes. At the same time, the courts say they don’t have the resources to ensure that the poorest misdemeanor offenders, those on long-term payment plans, are paying up.
Enter probation companies. They give courts what sounds like an incredible deal, offering probation services for misdemeanor cases at zero cost to the courts. But they ask for a monthly fee, paid by probationers, and that those who don’t keep up on payments will have their probation revoked – meaning they can face arrest.
Many of these misdemeanor offenses carry no real threat of jail time. Yet every year probation companies have secured warrants for the arrest of tens of thousands of people because they fall behind on payments.
The probation companies claim the people they threaten with jail can pay, and that they use the threat to convince people to dig deeper into their pockets.
To comply with the Supreme Court ruling, courts need to objectively analyze probationers’ financial situation before locking them up. However, many courts offload this responsibility to the probation companies – which have a financial stake in every single one of these cases.
Some companies play down the fact that probationers are jailed at taxpayer expense, as it clearly undercuts their argument that using probation services costs the state no money.
Probationers almost never know they legally have options besides jail. Mann said that his probation officer never told him that, if he genuinely can’t pay, his fines could be commuted or converted to community service.
This goes directly against the Supreme Court ruling, but unfortunately, people on probation with private companies rarely have lawyers helping them fight back.
And if people can’t pay, the threat of prison hangs over their head.
Mann kept shaking his head, confused as to how his fees had reached this point. His misdemeanors, most of which date back to the 1990s, range from driving with a suspended license to a DUI, criminal trespass, harassment, and an open container violation. He was hardly slouching on his repayment, and has paid well over $6,500 – but much of that money went to the JCS $40 monthly fee as opposed to the court.
Resigned about his inability to pay, he has even stopped reporting to his probation officer.
“They don’t want to hear why you can’t pay,” he said. “I know if I go to court, they’re just going to carry me off to jail, so I don’t go.”
Mann recently connected with a lawyer, who filed a motion to terminate the probation. Court documents show, she argues, that Mann was sentenced to probation with JCS for only two of his misdemeanors – driving without insurance and driving with a suspended license – and that he already paid those fines in full and should have been off probation years ago. The case is now awaiting a court ruling on her motion.
In the meantime, Mann hopes to stay out of jail.