Report: For-profit probation industry hurts America's poorest

Private companies oversee misdemeanor probation sentences, charging poorest people high fees, HRW finds

By Natasha Lennard

Published February 5, 2014 3:16PM (EST)


A report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlights how private companies charged with overseeing the probation of hundreds of thousands of misdemeanor probation sentences every year "trample" some of America's poorest with "discriminatory" penalty fees.

The report, "Profiting from Probation: America’s ‘Offender-Funded’ Probation Industry,” details how in several states, private firms with little-to-no oversight or regulation supervise draconian probation plans, which hits the poorest the hardest. Many of these probation cases relate to unpaid fees in the first, rendering the probation charges disproportionately punitive for the poorest offenders.

According to HRW, the for-profit industry collects a minimum of $40 million in fees every year from probationers, although precise figures are hard to determine. As the report notes, "Companies refuse to disclose how much money they collect in fees from offenders under their supervision. Remarkably, the courts that hire them generally do not demand this information either."

"Many of the people supervised by these companies wouldn’t be on probation to begin with if they had more money,” said Chris Albin-Lackey, senior researcher on business and human rights at Human Rights Watch. “Often, the poorer people are, the more they ultimately pay in company fees and the more likely it is that they will wind up behind bars.”

In HRW's release, a number of troubling cases exemplifying the system's cruelty are highlighted. "In Augusta, Georgia," HRW noted, "a man who pled guilty to shoplifting a $2 can of beer and [was] fined $200 was ultimately jailed for failing to pay more than $1,000 in fees to his probation company. At the time he was destitute, selling his own blood plasma twice a week to raise money."

A number of these cases are detailed in the video below, released by HRW in conjunction with their report:




Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Fees For-profit For-profit Probation Human Rights Human Rights Watch Poor Prison Privatization Probation Video