Many people think that debtor’s prisons disappeared from American society just as surely as horse-based transportation. But in fact, people who are too poor to pay fines are still being threatened with incarceration -- and even imprisoned -- today. Add private, for-profit companies to the mix, and you've got a system that abuses those who can least afford it, with disastrous effects on poor people and communities of color .
Our new documentary, To Prison For Poverty, features two parts. Part 1 tells the story of Hali Wood, a seventeen-year-old from Columbiana, Alabama, deeply in debt to a private probation company, JCS. Part 2 tells the story of Kathleen Hucks, a woman suing Sentinel Corrections Services for their abuse of power.
We've long known that mass incarceration disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color. In our video about the money bail system, we found that the wealthier a person is when arrested, the easier it will be to pay less in terms of money and freedom. A rich person who can afford to pay bail right away will get to go home, and will receive all of his or her money back upon returning to court. A poorer person accused of the same thing must pay fees to a bail bondsman in order to borrow enough money to make bail, and that fee will never be refunded. That means that a teacher might pay thousands in bail fees, when a movie star charged with the same offense would end up paying nothing.
We see a similar dynamic with for-profit probation companies. If someone gets a traffic ticket and can't pay, the judge puts her on "probation," which really means being ordered to walk down the hall and sign up for a payment plan with a company that has a contract to collect unpaid fines and fees for the court. If the person falls behind on her payments and ever-mounting fees, including those charged by the for-profit probation company itself, company officers pressure her for payments, sometimes with threats of jail and arrest warrants from court. The end result is that poor people scramble to make payments they can't afford. And some even lose their liberty and go to jail.
Like payday lenders, these for-profit companies often seek contracts in cities and counties that are strapped for cash. The companies then offer to collect debts owed to courts with no cost to the government by charging probationers—the very people put on probation simply because they were too poor to pay. Then the companies charge probationers exorbitant fees. Hali Wood was hit with a $41 seat belt ticket. Her payment plan charged a monthly fee of $35.
Probation is supposed to help people return to their community when there is no public safety justification for keeping them behind bars. That goal is sabotaged by companies that are simply collections agencies on steroids.
Judges who run these courts can end this abuse tomorrow, by exerting more oversight of these companies, or by simply ending contracts with these companies where they have the power to do so. As we explore in our documentary, traditional public probation does a fine job of enforcing the law without a profit motive.
In the coming weeks, we'll be screening To Prison for Poverty in the very communities where these companies operate. It's time to let them know we're on to their racket.