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Taxing the Poor: Private Probation and the Modern Debtors’ Prison

I remember reading about this a couple of years ago and shaking my head, but apparently, the problem hasn’t improved. In some of our more cash-strapped states and counties, courts are privatizing their probation departments, placing this core public function in the hands of private businesses.

Consider the example of Thomas Barrett. The Georgia resident was put on probation for stealing a can of beer. The private company that administered his probation charged him $360 per month in supervision and monitoring fees, even though he was poor and unemployed, and he couldn’t make the payments. He started skipping meals to save more money and catch up, but he fell behind anyway and eventually owed the company over $1000 in fees, which was more than five times the $200 criminal fine he was sentenced to pay for stealing the $2 beer. When he couldn’t pay the fees, the company petitioned to revoke his probation and had him jailed.

Across the political spectrum, we might agree that this is one of those non-delegable duties of government, and if government can no longer afford to do it, we ought to change something to ensure that it can, rather than outsource the job to for-profit enterprises with the wrong incentives. We might agree that we shouldn’t shake down poor people to make up the shortfall and then throw them in cages when they can’t pay.

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