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The carceral system has become a vast debt machine. It creates a dizzying array of financial obligations for those unfortunate enough to be caught in its dragnet. The lowest hanging fruits are the traffic fines extracted from motorists who fall foul of a speed trap, carefully laid by officers assigned to do “revenue policing” to help fund law enforcement budgets. Judges are also under pressure from county and municipal managers to pass down ever higher fines and court fees to pay for salaries and other local government operations. For those too poor to pay, penalties and surcharges are added to the debt load every step of the way.
At the other end of the system, formerly incarcerated people typically re-enter society with large debt burdens on their backs, accumulated while serving their sentences. A recent NYU study showed that individuals have to pay more than $3,700 annually just to cover basic needs (food, clothing, phone calls) during a prison stay in New York’s prisons. The numbers are much higher in states where the cost of room and board are directly borne by detainees. Wherever for-profit companies are allowed to operate, these sums are further inflated.
One of the most predatory operations within the system involves the contracting of private firms to provide probation services for those convicted of misdemeanors. Courts offer probation as an alternative to a longer jail sentence or imprisonment, typically after they have imposed fines and fees. The official justification for this form of outsourcing to a private entity is that the public is spared the cost of supervising the probation and detaining individuals for low-level offenses such as traffic violations, shoplifting, or public drunkenness. In reality, private probation supervision in many states is a rogue operation that acts as a debt collection agency, while profiting royally from the acute vulnerability of poor debtors.
As public budgets continue to shrink, courts around the country have adopted “offender-funded” models of criminal justice. In the case of probation, this means that the offender is charged fees for supervision services. Private probation companies offer relief to strapped local governments that don’t want to fund these services directly. But, in many localities, they also provide the muscle to shake down offenders for the fines and fees owed to the court. If the individuals are too poor to pay promptly, a judge will order probation so that they can pay in installments, and often for as long as they remain in debt. The companies are contracted as a collection tool for these payments, while they profit from the monthly supervision fees. As a result, they have a vested interest not only in the court’s ability to order probationary terms, but also in prolonging their duration.
There are two key components of this lucrative racket. The first depends on the poverty of offenders, who are disproportionately Black and brown. Those who cannot pay are further squeezed for revenue, and often end up paying much more in supervision fees than for the original fines. The second is the threat of detention for “delinquent” probationers. Private probation companies dangle this threat, and some courts carry through on it. If this sounds like “debtors prison,” abolished almost two centuries ago in the United States on the principle that no one should be criminally detained for their poverty, it almost certainly fits that description.
The Debt Collective (the world’s first debtors’ union) recently took action to raise awareness about the abuses of the private probation industry. Its sister initiative, the Rolling Jubilee Fund, has raised funds to buy up and eradicate more than $3.2 million of private probation debt in Louisiana and Florida. The debts were owed by more than 20,000 individuals and, in most cases, should never have been owed in the first place. Over the past few years, the Rolling Jubilee Fund has abolished almost $750 million of medical, student, payday loan, and judgement debts. Our fund does not function as a charity, dispensing debt forgiveness as an act of benevolence. Instead, these are abolition-minded acts of justice aimed at building the power of debtors though our union. The typical probation debtor has done nothing wrong and is on the hook solely because of their lack of income.
At the same time, the Debt Collective has launched an Abolish Bail Debt Tool that Californians can use to dispute their debts from bail bond contracts by using state consumer protection law. Because of California’s notoriously high bail bonds—$50,000 is the median sum, five times higher than the national average—many of the million who owe bail must turn to rapacious fee-paying private firms in order to make their payments.
No one should be preyed upon in this way, either for the purpose of private profit or because local governments and courts have adopted carceral debts as a form of regressive taxation. As for the threat of detention, the law forbids courts from taking away someone’s liberty for want of income. In Bearden v. Georgia (1983), the Supreme Court expressly ruled that probationers could not be returned to jail simply because they cannot afford to pay fees. It is time to properly enforce that law, which enjoins judges to properly account in sentencing for offender’s ability to pay. In addition, we must put an end to the widespread practice of funding government budgets by extorting poor people who are apprehended for minor offenses. Like debtors’ prison, which has slunk back into existence in many localities across the country, taxation by citation should be abolished permanently.
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