If you liked for-profit prisons pushing tougher sentencing and leading to a sharp increase in the warehousing of US citizens, then you’ll love for-profit probation:
Three years ago, Gina Ray, who is now 31 and unemployed, was fined $179 for speeding. She failed to show up at court (she says the ticket bore the wrong date), so her license was revoked.
When she was next pulled over, she was, of course, driving without a license. By then her fees added up to more than $1,500. Unable to pay, she was handed over to a private probation company and jailed — charged an additional fee for each day behind bars.
For that driving offense, Ms. Ray has been locked up three times for a total of 40 days and owes $3,170, much of it to the probation company. Her story, in hardscrabble, rural Alabama, where Krispy Kreme promises that “two can dine for $5.99,” is not about innocence.
It is, rather, about the mushrooming of fines and fees levied by money-starved towns across the country and the for-profit businesses that administer the system. The result is that growing numbers of poor people, like Ms. Ray, are ending up jailed and in debt for minor infractions.
It’s largely hidden from view for those who stay on the right side of the law, but the indignities placed on those unlucky enough to get caught up in the justice system include layered-on financial penalties. Over the years, states have added all kinds of fees on those least able to pay. And they outsource the collection to private companies that simply do not relent, and know exactly how to pyramid fees on top of fees. That’s how a speeding ticket becomes a debt for life.
This basically signals the return of debtor’s prisons in the United States, and it’s actually worse, because the citizens are paying for the privilege of landing in prison. In many areas, several rights (like the right to vote) rely on paying these back fines and fees after leaving jail. When they can’t pay the fine, the ex-convicts lose even more of their rights.
This is really a terrible story about how we’ve disconnected the justice system with its intentions. It has become a profit center instead of a way to deliver the proper punishment to fit crimes. Matt Yglesias writes:
As with prisons the basic issue here is that while you can contract-out your criminal justice functions to a private company, there’s just no such thing as a private criminal justice system. It’s not like an airline or a parcel delivery company that could be run by the state or could be run by private shareholders. At the end of the day a prison or a probation system is inherently all about the private coercive authority of the state. It’s hard to make these institutions work well but turning them into profit centers involves not even trying to accomplish the goals of a probation system.
This is the most extreme example of the dangers of privatization. In this case, the private companies profit off of the very liberty of the citizenry.