Thursday, July 26, 2012

Judicial Correction Services. (Hey, kids, let’s see if we can think of some more ways to screw poor people.)

There was an interesting article in The New York Times a few weeks back on how some counties (mostly in the South, surprise/surprise) farm out their probation services to third party for-profit companies.

Now outsourcing criminal justice is nothing news. Private prisons and jails may be of relatively recent vintage, but didn’t Steve McQueen get his big break playing Josh Randall, wild west bounty hunter, in Wanted Dead or Alive? (And don’t get me started on Dog and his posse….)

Here’s how the private probation system worked out for one poor woman in Alabama:

Three years ago, Gina Ray, who is now 31 and unemployed, was fined $179 for speeding. She failed to show up at court (she says the ticket bore the wrong date), so her license was revoked.

When she was next pulled over, she was, of course, driving without a license. By then her fees added up to more than $1,500. Unable to pay, she was handed over to a private probation company and jailed — charged an additional fee for each day behind bars.

For that driving offense, Ms. Ray has been locked up three times for a total of 40 days and owes $3,170, much of it to the probation company. Her story, in hardscrabble, rural Alabama, where Krispy Kreme “two can dine for $5.99,” is not about innocence.

It is, rather, about 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, like Ms. Ray, are ending up jailed and in debt for minor infractions. (Source: NY Times.)

Ms. Ray is not, of course, alone. There’s another hapless man who’s spent 24 months in jail and been fined $10K for some minor traffic and license violations. Why clamp a boot on someone’s car when you can clamp the handcuffs on them, haul them off to jail, and ruin their lives?

And in Georgia, a man subsisting on meager veterans benefits – less than $250/month – was fined $270 for public drunkenness, then put on probation. Unfortunately for Hills McGee, the probation was 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.

As you can see, to make this outsourcing really beneficial for the courts, they want to be able to really wriggle out of the costs of running probation systems. So the private probation-ers charge their “clients” for being on probation.

Anyway, a number of lawyers have taken this putrid system on, with some success. A judge in Alabama ordered at least a temporary shutdown to one system:

Judge Hub Harrington of Shelby County issued the order this week, saying that he was “appalled” by what he characterized as a “debtors’ prison.”

Charles Dickens, come on down!

“From a fair reading of the defendants’ testimony, one might ascertain that a more apt description of the Harpersville Municipal Court practices is that of a judicially sanctioned extortion racket,” he added. “Most distressing is that these abuses have been perpetrated by what is supposed to be a court of law. Disgraceful.” (Source: NY Times.)

The outfit that was on the receiving end of Judge Harrington’s injunction was Judicial Correction Services, which has a mighty enticing value proposition:

Supervision is completely offender-funded. This means your tax dollars are not going to support the probation office. Our practices have been shown to reduce jail populations, further saving local government correction and court budgets. In addition, court collections have increased in every community that has made the transition to JCS. This helps the court to fund itself.

It also touts its ability to create “jobs in your community.”

And on their handy list of do’s and don’ts for probies, there’s a reminder to be sure to pay by cash or money order.

Who said crime – even pokey little misdemeanors – doesn’t pay? It all depends on which side of the bench you’re standing.

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