Every year, US courts sentence several hundred thousand people to probation and place them under the supervision of for-profit companies for months or years at a time. They then require probationers to pay these companies for their services. Many of these offenders are only guilty of minor traffic violations like speeding or driving without proof of insurance. Others have shoplifted, been cited for public drunkenness, or committed other misdemeanor crimes. Many of these offenses carry no real threat of jail time in and of themselves, yet each month, courts issue thousands of arrest warrants for offenders who fail to make adequate payments towards fines and probation company fees.
In Georgia, Thomas Barrett pled guilty to stealing a can of beer from a convenience store and was fined US$200. He was ultimately jailed for failing to pay over a thousand dollars in fees to his probation company, even though his entire income—money he earned by selling his own blood plasma—was less than what he was being charged in monthly probation fees.
In Mississippi, a middle-aged woman was fined $377 for driving without a valid license. Months later, she called the court in tears because her company probation officer was threatening to have her jailed over $500 in unpaid supervision fees she said she could not afford. At the time she was trying to make ends meet working the night shift at a local gas station. Court officials told Human Rights Watch that she had already paid off her entire fine to the court, but still owed money to her probation company—and that the court had in no way authorized the probation company to threaten her with arrest.
In Alabama, a judge told Elvis Mann that he would go to jail unless he came up with $500 by the end of the day to pay part of what he owed in fines and probation company fees. His wife Rita spent an afternoon frantically begging and borrowing money from members of the couple’s church congregation to keep her husband from going to jail that very day. He had already been on probation for several years and had paid thousands of dollars in fines and probation company fees, but still owed thousands more.
Since the companies make all their money from fines, most of their money comes from people who can’t pay the fines for their crimes right away–they make most of their money from the poor. You don’t hear much about it, because who cares about the poor–right?