By Josué Monroy
SACRAMENTO– Michael Reynolds showed up to his hearing at Sacramento County Superior Court last week to present proof of his enrollment in a court-ordered rehabilitation program, when the issue of his home detention options came up.
In addition to the batterers program he was mandated to participate in, Reynolds was to be under electronic monitoring for the rest of his sentence in lieu of jail time as part of his deal with the district attorney. He would have to wear an ankle bracelet.
“Am I allowed to do it through a private company?” asked Reynolds.
Because he resides in San Francisco, Reynolds would not be able to easily check in with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office while under monitoring, and his defense attorney had sought out an alternative through private means, and settled on Intercept Offender Monitoring.
Ultimately, Judge Scott Tedmon granted the request, giving Reynolds his desired accommodation. However, it could cost him more than he realizes.
The outsourcing of GPS electronic monitoring and other offender monitoring to private companies by the courts is not any more beneficial for the person wearing the device—in fact it can be more detrimental.
Instead of the state incurring the costs of the monitoring, third-party monitoring requires the offender to foot the bill. The cost of wearing an ankle bracelet can be around $10 a day, with the initial activation fee averaging $300 or more.
Various devices such as continuous alcohol monitors, drug patches, GPS monitors, and breathalyzers are provided by these companies for offender monitoring, all with similar fees.
Offender-funded private probation systems have become increasingly alluring to jurisdictions across the country, many of which are underfunded. The contracts with private probation companies come at no cost to the county, and they are highly profitable for firms that can charge more, sometimes arbitrary, fees than a state-run program.
The privatization of offender monitoring particularly affects indigent offenders, who rarely have the means to pay the hundreds of dollars in initial registration and weekly fees, and face jail time when found to be in violation due to late payments. The payments are additional to what a person owes to the court after sentencing.
A report by Human Rights Watch highlighted the cycle of debt that individuals are caught in due to the privatized system, stating: “The same individuals who qualify for a court-appointed public defender or government benefits, such as food stamps and housing support, may still be ordered by courts to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars not only in fines levied as punishment for an offense, but in various fees and other surcharges.”
The amount of money private probation companies pocket from offenders is not clear—there is no federal or state mandate for those numbers to be disclosed in most cases. Georgia is the only state that has any sort of regulation in place that keeps track of the revenue of that industry.
The money that was sent back into the court system by private companies was estimated to be close to $100 million in 2012, according to the report.
The profit made from additional fees payed to the companies was not required to be disclosed, for the most part. By accounting for one specific fee that was mandatory to disclose, the report’s authors estimated that, from that fee alone, private probation companies made around $40 million annually from offenders. And that is based on one fee, in one state.
With the absence of any meaningful oversight, courts and private companies in search of maximized profit run the risk of abusing the rights of individuals. There is less incentive to provide services meant to get people off probation.
In 2015, the ACLU brought a lawsuit against Dekalb County in Georgia on behalf of Kevin Thompson, who was incarcerated after being unable to pay a fine in full for driving with a suspended license. The county had outsourced the payment processing to Judicial Correction Services, which took a cut of the small amount that Thompson was able to come up with.
Additionally, a private probation officer misinformed Thompson of his rights, and convinced him that he would have to pay $150 for a public defender, though did not inform him that the fee could be waived.
The suit contended that under a 1983 Supreme Court decision, Bearden v. Georgia, poor people should not be trapped into a cycle of debt and incarceration just for being poor. This includes providing alternatives to incarceration for failing to pay fines.
The lawsuit went on to say that the failure of the system is “not just of individual shortcomings but of an entire system in which for-profit companies, with a lack of oversight from municipalities that contract them, aim to collect the most money possible from the poor, through a probation program overseen and enforced by officers disincentivized from seeing that indigent people – those determined to be too poor to pay fines – are protected from incarceration.”
The privatization of the criminal justice system in the United States is continually expanding.
Companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group are in charge of numerous federal penitentiaries and immigration detention centers, as government agencies hand the reins over. Local jurisdictions are also handing more power over to private companies, resulting in citizens losing theirs.
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