The Penalty for Being Poor – Prison

By Simmi Bagri
Alliance for a Just Society

Imagine being poor. Then imagine that the depth of your poverty is compounded because you committed a minor infraction. You can’t pay your ticket. You go to court and are put under a probation monitoring service – more fees and fines. You can’t afford bus fare, so you walk everywhere. You can’t afford food, so you go hungry.

Then imagine being put in jail because you can’t pay the fines. Your life has been criminalized, and infrastructure that ought to allow you to you to make amends and move forward, traps you. You can’t escape it. Now you can stop imagining, because that is exactly what is happening across the United States today

Earlier this month the Human Rights Watch released a report titled “Profiting From Probation: America’s Offender-Funded Probation Industry,” which describes a probation model that incentivizes private for-profit companies to prey on low-income misdemeanor offenders.

Usually starting with a minor incident, the offenders become ensnared in debt and are eventually threatened with imprisonment if they fail to meet their financial obligations. The system is perpetuating the trend of using criminalization to trap people in poverty and of imprisoning them for profit.

The report is based on more than 75 interviews conducted with people in the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi during the second half of 2013. It describes patterns of abuse and financial hardship inflicted by the “offender-funded” model of privatized probation that prevails in well over 1,000 courts across the United States. The report finds that this system is biased against indigent offenders, is contrary to the best interests of the not only the convicted, but also the American judicial system and the taxpaying public.

Traditionally, courts use probation to offer a criminal offender conditional relief from a potential jail sentence. If the offender meets regularly with a probation officer and complies with court-mandated benchmarks of good behavior for a fixed period of time, they escape the harsher sentence the court would otherwise impose. This system costs the courts money that they may not necessarily be able to recoup.

Probation companies offer courts a deal too good to be true – they provide probation services in misdemeanor cases without asking for a single dime of public revenue. What they are allowed to do in return is to collect fees from the people on probation, and stipulate that their freedom is a condition of paying those fees.

This structure inherently perpetuates and criminalizes poverty, jailing people for the crime of being poor.  Ironically, the cost of eventually jailing the offender typically exceeds the cost of their crime and original court fees combined, according the report.

Privatized probation is used for offenders who are not dangerous and do not require constant supervision. They have been charged with infractions such as speeding, driving without insurance and noise violations. Originally, they are put on probation in order to give them time to pay their fines and court fees.

In effect, they would not be on probation, and subsequently in jail, if they had enough money to pay the fines. This is a direct violation of the Supreme Court decision in Bearden v. Georgia from 1983, which made it clear that courts cannot imprison an indigent person for failure to pay a criminal fine unless the failure to pay was willful.

The situation you were asked to imagine in the opening paragraphs isn’t fiction; it is the story of Thomas Barrett, a Georgia resident, highlighted in the the report, and a perfect example of the discrimination imbedded in this system. Barrett’s original crime was stealing a two-dollar can of beer. Due to this system however, he ended up spending three months in jail and went hungry while trying to keep out of jail by putting every penny into the fees accumulating in his name at the probation company.

“In fact, the business of many private probation companies is built largely on the willingness of courts to discriminate against poor offenders who can only afford to pay their fines in installments over time,” writes Chris Albom-Lackey, the researcher at Human Rights Watch who authored the report.

It’s in the best interest of the private probation companies to keep people in the system as long as possible and the courts are only making it so much easier. It’s time and past time to call for the abolition of this unjust and unconstitutional system.  Probation supervision needs to be shifted back to the courts who must dedicate staff to monitor long term payment plans with evaluations on how much the offender can viably pay.

It’s time to take the power to collect away from the private probation companies and to stop the criminalization of everyday life. As this dialogue proceeds, it is important to realize that mass incarceration is not only being used against people of lower economic status.

Last August, in our Cell Blocks and Border Stops symposium, the Alliance for a Just Society examined the trend of criminalization propagated by the privatized prison industry on diverse people across the United States. We are working with our affiliates and field partners to examine the effect the intersection of criminalization, control, and mass incarceration are having on subsets of our society. The next step is moving forward in considering the future of activism and organizing in these areas.