Some companies simply require offenders to purchase workbooks from them and then complete a short written test at the end of the book. Like all other probation services offered by these firms, these classes are billed to the offender. Some companies offer courses that are both implausibly ambitious and quite expensive. These programs are controversial, with some probationers and company critics questioning their utility.
Many probationers who were jailed for failure to pay complain that the judges at their revocation hearings flatly dismissed their claims that they were unable to come up with the money. But he knows best, I guess.
There is often no meaningful opportunity for an offender to convince the court that they are not able to pay their fine. Few offenders are represented by legal counsel and many are entirely unaware of the protections Bearden offers them. There is also generally little effort made to determine whether an offender is able to pay at the time of their sentencing.
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Many courts do not address the issue at all unless the offender affirmatively raises it. When courts do not make the time to find out whether a probationer can afford to pay the fines, costs and probation fees they are sentenced to, this task falls to their probation officer. It is ultimately the responsibility of the courts and not the probation companies to decide whether an offender is unable to pay their fines, but courts often rely on their probation officers to bring these cases to their attention.
Many probation officers understand the importance of this responsibility. As Dale Allen, the chief probation officer of the publicly run misdemeanor probation service in Athens-Clarke county, Georgia explained:. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, representatives of several leading probation companies all said that they take their obligation to determine whether offenders have the ability to pay their fines and probation fees very seriously. JCS and other companies say that they have procedures in place to do financial analyses of offenders who claim that they lack the means to pay their fines.
At the same time, though, some company officials cited alarmingly superficial factors as evidence that an offender can afford to pay whatever they were sentenced to.
That problem is by no means unique to privatized probation services. The summons they received by mail did not explain why they were being requested to appear in court. Unknown to them, all people had been summoned to court because they had not kept up with payments on fines and on supervision fees owed to the Court and JCS. The first few cases proceeded quickly. In each case, the JCS employee responded in the affirmative—though she did not actually produce evidence of that warrant for the court.
Judge Brown then told the probationer the total amount they allegedly owed in fines and JCS fees and asked whether they could pay that amount immediately and in full. Whenever a probationer said that they could not, Judge Brown ordered their arrest. The witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch emphasized that no offender had an opportunity to explain why they had not paid and the judge made no inquiries aimed at determining whether that failure was willful.
Most cases were disposed of in under a minute. The session continued. Under the best of circumstances, it is not necessarily an easy matter to determine whether an offender is being truthful in asserting that they lack the means to pay a fine or probation fees. A rigorous, objective financial analysis is generally required to assess the credibility of these claims.
But when courts delegate the burden of identifying offenders who are unable to pay their fines, costs, and supervision fees to employees of a private probation company, it presents a direct conflict of interest. Probationers with substantive conditions of probation require company time and resources to oversee and represent an unrecoverable cost if they are unable to pay their probation fees. This inherent conflict of interest is compounded when companies offer financial bonuses to probation officers and local office supervisors based on the amount they are able to collect in fees from probationers.
These programs set specific monetary targets for fee collections and pay out bonuses to probation officers and supervisors who meet or exceed them. One problem with these incentives programs is that they reinforce already dangerous pressures on company probation officers as well as the supervisors directly responsible for overseeing their conduct to view fee collection as the primary focus of their jobs. One former employee of two different probation companies told Human Rights Watch that:.
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Fee-based incentives programs can also incentivize probation officers to engage in inappropriately aggressive collections tactics, and put their supervisors in the position of potentially benefitting from such abuses. Probation companies have no real control over the size and nature of their caseloads. The number of probationers they supervise, and the ability of those probationers to pay company fees, depends entirely on the actions of the court. If numbers are down, the only way for a probation officer to improve their odds of meeting a financial target is to squeeze the probationers they supervise that much harder.
In addition, some probation officers may feel quite correctly that their livelihoods depend entirely on their ability to collect fees in excess of what it costs to employ them. This is especially true in rural areas where a company may employ only one probation officer to oversee offenders with several small Municipal or County Courts. As one probation officer with a medium-sized firm in Georgia put it:.
The bottom line is that probation companies should have no role in determining whether an offender possesses the ability to pay. Yet probation companies are asked to do this every day, against their own financial self-interest. The problems presented by this fundamental conflict of interest are not just hypothetical.
In Georgia, Human Rights Watch interviewed Clifford Hayes who was arrested in January when he went to a police station to seek clearance to enter a homeless shelter.
Hayes says he simply could not even make a dent in. The fees and the arrest warrant dated back to convictions for driving under the influence of alcohol, driving without a valid license and improper lane change he pled guilty to in He told Human Rights Watch that the payments he owed towards his fines and supervision fees would destroy this precarious and hard-won stability if he tried to keep up with them—and that neither his Sentinel probation officer nor the court had been willing to examine the truth of these assertions:.
I have to go to the soup kitchen to get food. I have to go to the thrift store to get clothes.
But I refuse to do that. I refuse to be out on the street again. Some of the probationers interviewed by Human Rights Watch described their company probation officers as professional, compassionate and helpful in the face of difficulty. But others alleged that their company probation officers behaved like abusive debt collectors. They described a consistent pattern of probation officers displaying a relentless, singular focus on payment and routinely threatening to have probationers jailed when their payments of fines and company fees fell into arrears.
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Probation company executives interviewed by Human Rights Watch condemned this kind of behavior while acknowledging that it was a problem in at least some cases. These complaints exist alongside allegations that some company probation officers misuse the threat of jail to squeeze offenders who fall behind on payments, while ignoring the protestations of offenders who claim they are genuinely unable to pay.
A lawsuit alleging abusive practices by JCS and the Municipal Court in Harpersville, Alabama is still pending and has already led that court to being shut down altogether. In Augusta, Georgia Sentinel probationers have filed suit alleging a broad range of abusive practices linked to the collection of probation fees. In September , Superior Court Daniel Craig granted partial summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs but Sentinel successfully sought temporary relief from the state Supreme Court pending final resolution of the case.
Sentinel has strongly rejected all of the allegations against it in the Augusta litigation, while agreeing that local courts sentenced some probationers in violation of their basic rights. Human Rights Watch interviewed some of the plaintiffs and potential plaintiffs in the Georgia and Alabama litigation, and some of their arduous experiences as probationers are described in the pages below.
But the more important point is that while some of the allegations at issue in those cases are at the extreme end of the spectrum, they are not mere aberrations. Many of the probationers interviewed by Human Rights Watch alleged that their company probation officers routinely threatened to have them jailed for failing to make payments or for falling into arrears—while refusing to take seriously their assertions that they could not afford to keep up with scheduled payments.
Probation company officials argued to Human Rights Watch that their employees have no ability to jail anyone and that this power lies exclusively with the courts. But as a later section of this report shows, some courts are so lax in their oversight of the probation companies they hire and so eager to delegate responsibility to them that company employees end up with a great deal of coercive power.
In July , Human Rights Watch interviewed a young woman who was then checked in to a drug rehabilitation facility in Augusta, Georgia. In a Richmond county State Court judge had modified her preexisting order of probation with Sentinel Offender Services to require her to wear and pay for an electronic monitoring bracelet.
She quickly fell behind and found her Sentinel probation officers unwilling to take seriously her insistence that she was unable to pay:. Some court officials may openly or tacitly sanction such aggressive tactics.
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But in other cases there is evidence that probation company employees threaten to jail offenders without the knowledge or approval of the court. Working a low-paying job at a local gas station, she had struggled to keep up with her payments. Judge Straight recalled:. They are using us as judges.