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July 3, 2012

"Poor Land in Jail as Companies Add Huge Fees for Probation"

The title of this post is the headline of this front-page article from the New York Times.  Here are excerpts:

[Recent years have seen] 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 ... are ending up jailed and in debt for minor infractions.

“With so many towns economically strapped, there is growing pressure on the courts to bring in money rather than mete out justice,” said Lisa W. Borden, a partner in Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, a large law firm in Birmingham, Ala., who has spent a great deal of time on the issue.  “The companies they hire are aggressive.  Those arrested are not told about the right to counsel or asked whether they are indigent or offered an alternative to fines and jail.  There are real constitutional issues at stake.”

Half a century ago in a landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled that those accused of crimes had to be provided a lawyer if they could not afford one.  But in misdemeanors, the right to counsel is rarely brought up, even though defendants can run the risk of jail. The probation companies promise revenue to the towns, while saying they also help offenders, and the defendants often end up lost in a legal Twilight Zone....

In Georgia, three dozen for-profit probation companies operate in hundreds of courts.... In one, Randy Miller, 39, an Iraq war veteran who had lost his job, was jailed after failing to make child support payments of $860 a month. In another, Hills McGee, with a monthly income of $243 in veterans benefits, was charged with public drunkenness, assessed $270 by a court and put on probation through a private company.  The company added a $15 enrollment fee and $39 in monthly fees.  That put his total for a year above $700, which Mr. McGee, 53, struggled to meet before being jailed for failing to pay it all.

“These companies are bill collectors, but they are given the authority to say to someone that if he doesn’t pay, he is going to jail,” said John B. Long, a lawyer in Augusta, Ga., who is taking the issue to a federal appeals court this fall.  “There are things like garbage collection where private companies are O.K. No one’s liberty is affected. The closer you get to locking someone up, the closer you get to a constitutional issue.”

The issue of using the courts to produce income has caught the attention of the country’s legal establishment.  A recent study by the nonpartisan Conference of State Court Administrators, “Courts Are Not Revenue Centers,” said that in traffic violations, “court leaders face the greatest challenge in ensuring that fines, fees and surcharges are not simply an alternate form of taxation.”

J. Scott Vowell, the presiding judge of Alabama’s 10th Judicial Circuit, said in an interview that his state’s Legislature, like many across the country, was pressuring courts to produce revenue, and that some legislators even believed courts should be financially self-sufficient.

In a 2010 study, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law examined the fee structure in the 15 states — including California, Florida and Texas — with the largest prison populations.  It asserted: “Many states are imposing new and often onerous ‘user fees’ on individuals with criminal convictions.  Yet far from being easy money, these fees impose severe — and often hidden — costs on communities, taxpayers and indigent people convicted of crimes.  They create new paths to prison for those unable to pay their debts and make it harder to find employment and housing as well as to meet child support obligations.”

Most of those fees are for felonies and do not involve private probation companies, which have so far been limited to chasing those guilty of misdemeanors.  A decade or two ago, many states abandoned pursuing misdemeanor fees because it was time-consuming and costly.  Companies like Judicial Correction Services saw an opportunity.  They charge public authorities nothing and make their money by adding fees onto the bills of the defendants.

July 3, 2012 at 05:20 AM | Permalink


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years ago there were many articles about things like these, but I can't remember where

Posted by: Claudio Giusti | Jul 3, 2012 7:52:19 AM

apparently some people thought that "A Christmas Carol" was a tragedy in that nobel job creator Scrooge became brainwashed by some socialist ghosts.

why else would they be trying to bring back workhouses and debtors prisons? how soon before alabama and the rest of the dirty south goes back to having leased convict labor which would effectively bring back slavery?

erika :)

Posted by: Erika | Jul 3, 2012 9:32:59 AM

easy enough to stop it. but would take guts on the part of those being shafted and the public!

the shafted would have to start kiling the little robber barons in the act! and then DEMAND a JURY trial!

and the public would have to start voting NOT-GUILTY in the trials!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jul 3, 2012 10:52:18 AM

It's just the next natural step in the evolution of the prison-industrial complex. Crime certainly pays for some people, apparently.

Posted by: Guy | Jul 3, 2012 12:33:33 PM

lawyers complaining is a joke. look around - defense. prosecutors, judges, legal counsel for everything involving public safety like sheriff's counsel, administrator counsel - the lawyer industrial complex is the biggest cost, an out of control cost, that has now led to having to charge defendants and offenders to make up for the millions spent for all the members of the lawyer industrial complex. ironically, if an innocent defendant who is poor comes to any one of the lawyers for help, unless that innocent defendant can cough up the money, they will turn them down in a heartbeat. lawyers don't do nothing for free - no matter how poor, how deserving. its the lawyers stupid. occupy the lawyer industrial complex, who's motto is "if anyone competes against them for the "legal budget dollars", then crush 'em. the county needs to list all the lawyers who get county money, including liability award money, and how much they got. want to see shock - do this for anyone with a lawyer license.

Posted by: ab | Jul 3, 2012 1:11:06 PM

Guy, you know that while you took a shot at me the other day by saying how awful it is that you agree with me about something, you know that we really agree on many things, don't you? :)

my Erika's Icky Perv Solution posts are actually a parody of this very issue (sorry to say that the posts involving chopping are serious - for me, personal experience and emotion overrides reason when it comes to icky pervs).


Erika :)

Posted by: Erika | Jul 3, 2012 5:44:20 PM

Sorry to read of your experience .

What if the alleged then convicted perv is innocent, albeit the % of convicted innocents is lower than the % of convicted guilty ??

For the convicted innocent, the percent is 100%.

☺ Hugs back ; have a safe and pleasant Independence Day! ‼

▼ ▬ ♦ ▬ ▼
… for me, personal experience and emotion overrides reason when it comes to icky pervs).


Erika :)

Posted by:  They call me ▬►Mister Blank◄▬ | Jul 4, 2012 5:22:19 AM


I'm sure we do agree on some things, and I hope you can forgive me for my snark -- it was good-natured, or at least intended as such.

And I know that you're serious about your chopping posts, I and my significant other are just glad we at least ostensibly have laws to guard against that sort of thing.

And I am sorry for your personal experience, whatever that may be. I'm not unsympathetic. I was raped as a boy, and so I get that. I had a lot of anger for a long time, too. What took a lot of that away was the realization that my abuser was raped repeatedly, as well. Not that his actions or his abusers actions relieve anyone of the ultimate responsibility for their actions, but with that knowledge comes, for me at least, a certain understanding and compassion. And also a gratitude that I was arrested when I was. I've never hurt a child, at least not directly, and never wanted to either -- but the kind of life I was leading...I don't know if it would have stayed that way or not. So I get a chance to break the cycle.

And I really don't mean to imply that any of that abdicates me of responsibility. It doesn't. I was arrested, and punished as I should have been.


Posted by: Guy | Jul 6, 2012 5:15:11 PM

Oh and Erika -- I don't mean to be telling you what to do or how to live your life. If I'm overstepping, just disregard. But there's an old saying someone told me once that I liked that's on point: resentment is like you drinking the poison and waiting for the other person to die.

What I found is that all my anger and hostility was only harming me in the end. Maybe your situation is different, I don't know. Take care.

Posted by: Guy | Jul 6, 2012 5:45:59 PM

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Posted by: Marlene Greis | Mar 17, 2013 11:08:47 AM

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