The Private Probation Trap
Over these past several months, the media has covered a number of stories exposing a major problem with how our criminal justice system punishes and monitors low-level offenders. The above video uses humor to profile the absurd application of justice to people who have been charged with traffic violations and other misdemeanor offenses. A misdemeanor offense is generally defined as one which carries a penalty of less than $1,000 fine and a maximum incarceration period of one year in jail. Most people who have had dealings with our criminal justice system have done so due to being charged with a municipal violation, like a traffic ticket or other local ordinance, or a misdemeanor offense under state law (possession of small amounts of marijuana, DUI or underage possession of alcohol). Once someone is convicted of a municipal violation or misdemeanor offense, they are often sentenced to serve a period of probation. This form of punishment is used for most criminal offenders when the offense isn’t considered to be severe and the offender doesn’t have a significant criminal history. In these such cases, it is thought that the interests of justice are best served to allow a low-level offender to be monitored by the court system but allow them to remain free and continue working and be a contributing member of society.
The problem with the application of this system is with who is doing the monitoring. For felony offenders, most states have a probation division that monitors those individuals convicted of a felony offense. These probation officers are state-paid government employees. However, for most offenders that are convicted solely of misdemeanor or municipal offenses, these individuals are often monitored by a private probation company. These private companies are tasked with enforcing the sentence of the court for a misdemeanor conviction. This means they are given the blessing of the court to monitor and carry out their sentences and ensure that probationers are not violating the terms of their probation or committing new offenses. There is very little oversight in how these “for profit” companies supervise their probationers. They can charge an individual probation fees for the “privilege” to be monitored by their probation officer and those fees must be paid every time a person reports to the probation office. They can require someone on probation to report as often as once a week (though most people are required to report monthly), can randomly screen subjects for drug and alcohol use and can actually issue warrants for the arrest of any probationer for what they consider to be a violation. This can include the failure of a drug/alcohol test, the commission of a new criminal offense or something as minor as the failure to timely pay their probation monitoring fees. The private probation system is big business which has been given great authority by the court system to enforce the judgments of the court. But what happens when that authority is abused? Private probation companies often allow probationers to pay their monitoring fees for their probation term in advance, and thus buy their way out of weekly or bi-weekly meetings with their probation officer. This is a great benefit for someone who has the means to pay those monitoring fees in advance. However, for those that live paycheck to paycheck and were barely scraping by before being required to pay monthly monitoring fees, the cost of these frequent meetings plus the time they miss from work to meet with their probation officers can nearly bankrupt someone. And, if someone misses a probation appointment or fails to pay their fines or monitoring fees on time, they could wind up back in jail.
This entry is not intended to excuse criminal behavior or to say that the probation system for misdemeanor offenses is arbitrary and heavy-handed across the board. But, there should be great concern for private companies who, with the court’s authority, can impose heavy fines, penalties and even jail time, upon relatively low-level offenders who are probably doing all they can to make ends meet.