Human Rights Watch has a disturbing report on America’s little-known offender-funded probation industry. That report claims a destitute Georgia man was hounded relentlessly by a for-profit company after his arrest for stealing a $US2 can of beer.
Thomas Barrett pleaded guilty to his April 2012 beer theft in an Augusta, Ga. court, and he was given 12 months probation and ordered to pay a $US200 fine. Barrett was also ordered to wear an alcohol monitoring bracelet, a service provided by Sentinel Offender Services LLC.
That Augusta court, like more than 1,000 other courts throughout the United States, uses an offender-funded model of privatized probation. This privatized model provides little government oversight over probation and can burden low-level offenders — many of whom don’t have a lot of money in the first place, according to Human Rights Watch.
The supervision fees paid to private companies range from $US35 to $US100 a month and can be even higher if offenders have to pay court fines on top of them. Barrett’s total payment to Sentinel was $US360 a month, according to Human Rights Watch.
In Barrett’s case, he was also ordered to pay a $US80 startup fee to Sentinel, according to Human Rights Watch. Barrett was already poor and living mostly off food stamps when he was arrested for stealing the beer, so he couldn’t even afford that initial payment. He spent a month in jail just for not paying that fee. After he got out of jail, Barrett started giving his blood plasma to try to make money pay the fees for his alcohol monitoring bracelet.
“You can donate plasma twice a week as long as you’re physically able to,” he told Human Rights Watch, saying he made about $US300 a month this way. “Basically what I did was, I’d donate as much plasma as I could and I took that money and I threw it on the leg monitor.”
Barrett still had trouble paying his bills to Sentinel and ended up going to jail for failure to pay $US1,000 in fees, according to Human Rights Watch. The judge told him he could have avoided jail if he paid several hundred dollars to Sentinel then and there, which would have been impossible for him to do.
When a judge offered Barrett that untenable option, he told Human Rights Watch that he thought to himself, “‘But the whole problem is, I don’t have money.'”
This Catch-22 might sound like an absurd anomaly, but poor people around the U.S. are becoming indebted to for-profit companies after getting arrested for misdemeanours. In July 2012, The New York Times reported on this trend and noted that three dozen for-profit companies that levy probation fines operate in Georgia alone. One for-profit company called Judicial Correction Services acknowledged to The Times that a lot of the offenders whose probation it oversees say they simply can’t afford to pay its fees.
“We hear a lot of ‘I can’t pay the fee,’ ” the company’s chief marketing officer, Kevin Egan, told The Times. “It is not our job to figure that out. Only the judge can make that determination.”
We reached out to Sentinel, which oversaw Barrett’s probation, and will update this post if we hear back.
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