Spotlight Exclusives

Critics Say Private Probation Companies Prey on the Poor

Stell Simonton Stell Simonton, posted on

In the summer of 2015, Stacey Adams was summoned to Atlanta Municipal Court for making an illegal U-turn. She was fined $215.

In 2014, Cindy Rodriguez was charged with shoplifting from a grocery store in Murfreesboro, Tenn. She had no prior offense and was put on probation and ordered to pay court costs of $578.

In 2013, Steven Gibbs, also of Murfreesboro, was charged with driving on a suspended license and was fined.

What all three people had in common was the inability to pay their court fine in full.

They also had another thing in common: The misfortune to live in areas where courts were using private probation companies without holding the companies accountable.

All three people ending up owing far more than their original fine, and Gibbs ended up being jailed for inability to pay.

Lawyers and advocacy groups who’ve gone to bat for clients supervised by private probation companies say the companies are preying on the poor. It’s two-tiered system of justice in which poor people pay a far steeper price than others for the same offense.

A Human Rights Watch report in 2014 called it “a tax on poverty.”

“It’s just one of the ways the criminal justice system is funding itself on the backs of the people who are least able to afford it,” said Carl Takei, senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project.

Ballooning debt

 When Adams, for example, could not pay her total fine in court, she was put on “pay only” probation and assigned to be supervised by Sentinel Offender Services, which handled collections for Atlanta Municipal Court from 2006 to 2017. It took Adams several months to pay the fine, and she paid an additional $108 to Sentinel, according to court filings. Sentinel also imposed a $20 “enrollment fee” that is being challenged in a lawsuit by the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Rodriguez, a disabled Tennessee woman who supports herself and a teenage daughter on Social Security disability, was assigned to the private company Providence Community Corrections by the Rutherford County court. As she slowly paid her fine, the company applied most of her payments to its own charges. When she had nearly paid the total court fine amount of $578, she found the company had only applied $66 of her money to the original fine.

People in Rutherford County who had misdemeanor offenses or traffic and parking tickets were picking up court debt of as little as $100 to $150, said Phil Telfeyan, an attorney with the nonprofit legal services firm Equal Justice Under Law, who brought a class action lawsuit against Providence Community Corrections on behalf of Rodriguez, Gibbs and others.

“If someone couldn’t pay it off, they would be put on probation,” he said.

Providence would charge them $45 a week, Telfeyan said. When people made partial payments each month, the money would be applied to the Providence charges and the person’s court fine would remain unpaid, he said. Their debt ballooned.

“It kept going up,” Telfeyan said. “They never could get out of debt.”

He said debts of $500 to $600 were common with court fines of $100 to $150.

The company also charged for drug testing, even when people had no history of drug or alcohol abuse, according to the lawsuit.

On top of that, supervision was minimal, unlike normal probation, Telfeyan said. The company was open only two days a week and would see probationers for two to three minutes each, he said.

“Probation is meant to rehabilitate,” Telfeyan said. Probation officers help people get jobs, find housing and do things that get them back on their feet.

When the lawsuit hit the news, letters, emails and calls began flooding in to the lawyers bringing suit.

The lawyers ultimately talked with about 200 impacted people, Telfeyan said.

“We believe about 30,000 people in Murfreesboro were subjected to PCC’s abuses,” he said.

Company agrees to settle

In September, Providence agreed to settle the suit for $14 million and Rutherford County agreed to pay $300,000. A final court order is pending.

A spokeswoman for Providence, which changed its name to Pathways and was acquired by Molina Healthcare, said that the business closed almost two years ago and “is glad to have resolved this legacy matter.”

“Pathways remains focused on its core business of providing behavioral and mental health services to its clients across the country,” said Laura Murray, director of public relations for Molina Healthcare.

Georgia is one of the states with the worst problem with private probation companies, according to the Human Rights Watch report.

Augusta attorney Jack Long brought a number of suits against Sentinel Offender Services, and two years ago Georgia set limits on the amount of money companies could collect from people on probation.

In February, Sentinel settled a suit for $1.5 million and has quit running probation services for Atlanta Municipal Court.

However, “there’s a lot of private probation companies still operating in Georgia,” Long said.

They try to “up-sell” their services to the judge, offering anger management courses and personal responsibility classes. They argue to the court for imposing these requirements and charge a fee for them, he continued.

Sentinel’s attorney in Georgia did not return phone calls seeking comment.

 Many jurisdictions are eager to contract their probation functions to companies that will take on the burden and expense—and make money for the court. Companies argue that it makes sense to transfer the cost of probation from the taxpayer to the offender.

Long disagrees. “Courts should not be in the business of being a revenue source. People who have the money can pay court fines and are done with it,” he said. The burden falls on people who can’t pay.

Georgia has 159 counties and more than 800 municipal and traffic courts, Long explained, creating a hodgepodge system of justice. No one is requiring private probation companies to file how much they make, he said, and no one is looking to see whether the fees are reasonable.

 Where’s the accountability?

“It’s really hard to know the extent of the problem [with private probation companies],” said Takei, of the ACLU. Many are small companies and they individually approach local judges.

The industry is hard to track, he said, and he knows of no complete national survey.

Private probation firms may be active in about a dozen states, he said.

“There is not a lot of transparency,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute.

Contracts should be improved, she said. Government entities that contract with private companies need to list the services, require transparency, institute outcomes measures, and levy effective fines if the companies fail to meet requirements.

Eisen’s book “Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” was published earlier this month and looks at the ways various businesses are profiting from the justice system.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives last year that would remove some federal funds for states that allow private probation services to operate.

“We’re planning to re-introduce it again this year,” said Josh Weisz, Takano’s communications director.

In 2016, the Kentucky Supreme Court ordered that private probation companies provide information annually to the state Administrative Office of the Courts. That has yet to happen, according to the ACLU of Kentucky in a report released in September. The ACLU recommended that the state stop allowing private probation companies until they comply with the new law.

Eisen said that the incentive for private probation companies is a perverse one. “They charge for being on probation,” she said, so there is not the incentive to help people move off of probation.

“It criminalizes poverty,” she said.

Stell Simonton is an independent journalist in Atlanta who frequently writes about youth issues for Youth Today. She has contributed to publications including the Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post and Al Jazeera America, and she was formerly a digital editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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