When for-profit companies make money off the criminal justice system through privatization of prisons, it often triggers serious public debate. But there has been precious little scrutiny of local governments that use courts to make money for themselves. We should all be paying closer attention, because that kind of for-profit justice often means shifting public costs onto a community’s poorest members and creating perverse incentives for courts to ratchet up the pain.  

From Ferguson to the suburbs of Atlanta, some municipalities and counties have turned their courts into veritable cash cows. They deploy a crushing array of fines, court costs, and other fees to harvest revenues from minor offenders that these communities cannot or do not want to raise through taxation. This is as dangerous and abusive as it is politically tempting.

Many public officials have embraced the idea that minor offenders should pay at least part of whatever it costs to bring them to book. But many courts now levy fees that are enormous in comparison to the punishments actually imposed for an offense. A resident of Montgomery, Alabama who commits a simple noise violation faces only a $20 fine—but also a whopping $257 in court costs and user fees should they seek to have their day in court. It’s a very short slide downhill from asking the courts to recover some of their costs to asking them to turn a profit and help fill up the municipal treasury.

Unfortunately, these practices are widespread. In the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting, investigations have thrown up evidence that municipal courts across the St. Louis metro area seem to prey on poor, mostly black people charged with relatively trivial offenses. Many are guilty only of so-called “crimes of poverty”—like a person who fails to renew their auto insurance or fix a broken taillight because they simply can’t afford it. People leave court with steep new debts that make it even harder to meet the original obligations. Often, the money courts collect from minor offenders far exceeds operating costs and spills over to fund other services.

While there are signs that long-overdue reforms may be coming to Ferguson, there are courts across the U.S. that seem bent on harvesting profits from the poor. The problem of revenue-driven courts has been not so much hidden as widely ignored.

At Human Rights Watch, our research has shown how courts can wind up mired in abusive practices when they are being pushed to earn more money. Local courts across several states, such as Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, have turned to for-profit companies that provide probation supervision in misdemeanor cases. Many of the courts that hire these companies are not looking for a probation service so much as a debt collector—offenders are frequently put on probation purely because they need time to pay all of what they owe to the court.

Probation companies operate on what they call an “offender-funded” model, charging fees directly to the offenders they supervise. Those fees can add up into vast sums over time, and offenders who fail to pay their probation company its due can be arrested. Sometimes, these companies behave more like abusive debt collectors than probation officers. And perversely, the way fees are structured, poorer people actually wind up paying more because they need more time on probation to pay what they owe.

The Alabama town of Harpersville provides a useful cautionary tale. The town hired a for-profit company called Judicial Correction Services (JCS) to act as a probation service for its municipal court. The town relied on the court to generate some $300,000 of the town’s annual budget through fines and court costs. Some offenders paid more in fees to JCS than they owed the court to begin with, and many wound up behind bars for falling behind.

This story ended badly for everyone involved. Offenders straining under the yoke of these costs sued the town, and a state judge condemned the whole operation as a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket." Harpersville wound up shutting down its municipal court entirely and was left scrambling to plug a gaping hole in its budget. In the end, the town did what it probably should have done in the first place—it passed a 1 percentage point increase in local property taxes to fund basic services the old-fashioned way. But many other towns in Alabama and other states are still doing exactly the same thing.

Our courts should be in the business of doing justice, not making money off the backs of the poor. That statement may have the ring of an uncontroversial platitude, but in fact it’s a principle too many U.S. local governments have turned their backs on.

Chris Albin-Lackey is a senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter at @calbinlackey.