Debtor prisons have existed almost forever. Years before the birth of Christ. They gained additional prominence in Medieval Europe.

Debtor prisons are for those who cannot pay a debt. Pay or go to jail. Simple.

Colonial America had debtor prisons.

James Wilson signed the Declaration of Independence and was a Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He spent time in a debtor’s prison while sitting as such a Justice for failure to pay a debt.

Robert Morse was another who signed the Declaration of Independence and spent time in a debtors’ prison. Three years. George Washington was a frequent visitor.

The United States did away with debtor prisons in the mid 1800s. They returned in the twentieth century. The U.S. Supreme Court dealt with the issue in the 1983 decision Bearden v. Georgia. The Court held debtors’ prisons unconstitutional, without first making inquiry into a person’s ability to pay and consider whether there are adequate alternatives to imprisonment. The case involved a person on probation who failed to pay a court ordered fine. He was incarcerated.

Present day scenarios involve minor crimes and infractions. Traffic violations like speeding or driving without a license, shop lifting, public drunkenness, and other misdemeanors. Jail or a fine are available for sentencing. The court orders a fine to be paid. The individual fails to pay the fine. The result, jail.

The problem with the Supreme Court decision was the verbiage requiring inquiry into a person’s ability to pay. Partial payments are ordered. At some point, the person fails to pay and is jailed. The court has satisfied the requirement re inquiry as to ability to pay by providing for partial payments.

From the type of misdemeanors and infractions described, only the poor are jailed. The rich pay the minor fine to rid themselves of the problem.

There are always the astute who figure a way to make a buck in less than a tasteful fashion. Jails in the United States have been growing at a rapid rate for many years. 1992 brought increased incarcerations. 2010 another jump upward.

The courts were overburdened supervising those on probation. Probation officers were overworked. Private probation companies developed. They agreed to take over the burden of the courts and probation officers in most instances for a fee. The fee is not charged to the county or city. It is charged to the person placed on probation by the court. As a result, the counties and cities experience significant dollar savings.

Judges are more inclined to place people on probation since the financial burden is no longer that of the county.The probation company collects and pays the fine to the court. Again, no charge to the county.

Nothing is for nothing, however. The person on probation pays. The twenty odd States that permit private companies allow them to charge for the company’s services. Such cost generally labeled as supervision. There is no oversight. The private companies are free to charge those on probation at will. An example being $300 per month while collecting a $150 traffic fine over a period of six months. Note, $300 a month for six months of supervision for a $150 fine. A money-making business!

If the person owing the $150 fails to pay at any time and is jailed, the $300 charge per month continues till he is released. It is the private company doing the paperwork for the county or city.

Local governments have become pigs along the way. Seeing how the private companies could charge and add on for anything at will, courts in certain areas are charging for the time of the county public defender (I thought the poor were entitled to counsel free), court costs, court paperwork. And room and board for the time spent in jail. The private probation company does the collecting. Everyone eats!
An unholy alliance has developed between county and city courts and the private companies. The courts were strapped for cash. The private companies came to the rescue.
Georgia is the State most deeply involved with private companies. Thirty four such companies operate in Georgia. Five hundred thousand people are on probation a year. Big bucks!
An example of how the system works involves Thomas Barrett. The State, Georgia. Barrett stole a $2 can of beer. He was unemployed, on food stamps, and selling his blood to make a few extra dollars. The court fined him $200. Partial payments were permitted.
Barrett’s case for purpose of probation was then turned over to a private company. The company charged him $360 a month for supervision. When the amount he owed reached $1,000, the company obtained a warrant to have him jailed. The county realized an additional benefit since a portion of his confinement costs were also added on.
The total kept going up. How was Barrett ever going to get out of jail?
Barrett’s case is not uncommon.
The injustice is easy to sense. The reason it continues is that local governments are happy to have the problem and costs of probation off their hands. Ergo, officials are intentionally blind to the injustice. Another reason is that government has failed to provide oversight of the private companies. They operate at will. They are basically free to do what they want.
A federal judge recently labeled the system as a “…..judiciously sanctioned extortion racket.” Company employees generally operate like abusive bill collectors. The system is nothing more than legal terrorization. Monies are being extorted from the poor. Poor people going to jail for a lack of money.
It is estimated that 20 States permit private probation companies at this time. More will join since it is a dollar saving mechanism.
As banks and major corporations have lobbyists, the private probation company industry has lobbyists, also. They generally operate with State governments.
The problem is relatively new. No solutions are on the table. One will come with time. When more are aware of the injustices involved, the cry will grow for reform. Unfortunately, that time is still a ways off. Perhaps, a long way.

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