(New York)— A bill introduced in the US House of Representatives by Rep Mark Takano (D-CA) could help curb some of the most prevalent abuses associated with the privatization of misdemeanor probation in several US states, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill, HR 4364, seeks to deter courts from using for-profit probation companies as an abusive debt collection tool in cases where misdemeanor offenders lack the immediate financial means to pay fines and court costs.
Human Rights Watch has documented a range of abusive practices linked to low-level courts’ use of for-profit probation companies to supervise misdemeanor offenders. One of the most pernicious is courts’ use of “pay only probation,” where offenders are put on probation and required to make monthly payments to a probation firm purely because they need time to pay down fines and other costs associated with their offense. These offenders do not otherwise require probation and the only substantive condition of their probation is the regular payment of money to the probation company. Probation ends when the offenders’ financial obligations have been satisfied in full.
“Pay only probation” discriminates against poor offenders because they are forced to pay significant fees that are imposed purely because they cannot afford to pay the fine all at once. As a result, they pay far more for the same offense than someone with the means to pay the fine at once. The less money people have and the longer it takes them to pay what they owe, the longer they remain on probation and the more they ultimately pay in probation company fees. In some cases these fees can reach thousands of dollars and their failure to pay either the fines or fees can lead to imprisonment.
HR 4364 would make ineligible for federally-provided Byrne Justice Assistance grants any states or local governments whose courts use for-profit probation companies and allow them to charge fees to “pay only” probationers. These grants provide financial assistance to local court systems across the US. The bill would not require courts to abandon their use of private probation companies in order to maintain eligibility for the grants, but only to refrain from allowing probation companies to charge fees to “pay only” probationers. While Georgia has recently passed key reforms aimed at curbing some of the worst excesses linked to private probation, other states where the use of “offender-funded” probation is widespread have so far taken no effective action.
- Human Rights Watch, Profiting from Probation: America’s “Offender-Funded” Probation Industry, February 2014: https://www.hrw.org/reports/2014/02/05/profiting-probation-0
- Southern Poverty Law Center: https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/1-14-16_media_advisory.pdf
- ACLU, Thompson v. DeKalb County, January 2015: https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform-racial-justice/thompson-v-dekalb-county
- Georgia Department of Audits, Report on Misdemeanor Probation Practices, April 2014: http://www.audits.ga.gov/rsaAudits/viewDivisionCate.aud?divisionCate=divisionCategoryId&filterDivisionValue=3
- Southern Center for Human Rights, Profiting from the Poor: A Report on Predatory Probation Companies in Georgia, July 2008: https://www.schr.org/files/profit_from_poor.pdf