The Probation System
The probation system of any country is supposed to be a system for the rehabilitation of offenders, a second chance at leading a normal life, a life free of crime. However, it is getting in its own way and probation fees are the reason why.
Once criminals are convicted, they may be sentenced to jail or, if their crimes are harmless enough, be subjected to probation, based on the ruling of the court. Under a probation system, the criminals are released from official custody, given that they exhibit good behavior under supervision for a period of time. Previously, it was the judicial system of the state that was handling probation. But now, many of those courts have delegated the responsibility to private companies: for-profit organizations that charge exorbitant fees to the offenders they supervise, incentivized by the drive to maximize their profits. On the surface, these fees allow the state to cut their legal costs, but they are, in fact, counter-productive.
Poverty and Recidivism
Probation fees seek to lower the rate of incarceration, but instead, they contribute to it. A convict who is seeing to reintegrate himself into society after a period of probation would end up back in jail if he fails to pay the fee. These draconian measures are, therefore, accomplishing nothing but worsening the rates of crime.
Case studies of individuals who have had to face the adverse effects of probation are not lacking. The Human Rights Watch compiled a report of the interviews with 75 individuals in America who were subject to the brutalities of probation fees. As the report illustrates, these fees are incommensurate with the crimes that the offenders were convicted for. Take the example of a middle-aged woman in Mississippi who was fined $377 for driving without a valid license. On top of this, her probation company imposed a fee of $500, which she could not afford to pay. Despite paying off her fine to the court, she was threatened with jail time if she doesn’t pay the fine of $500 to her probation company. Or look at the case of Thomas Barrett, who was destitute and arrested in 2012 for the theft of a can of beer. He was offered probation with Sentinel Offender Services, a private firm to whom he owes more than $1000 despite selling his own blood plasma biweekly to raise money. Imposing a punishment of $877- which for many individuals amounts to more number of hours working the night shift, and therefore deteriorating health and quality of life- is out-of-line for a low-income woman arrested for something as relatively trivial as driving without a license. And if a man has to resort to selling his own blood plasma for paying a $1000 fee for stealing a $2 beer can, the system is clearly failing.
These fees are levied upon those who can afford them the least. Research from the Prison Policy Initiative shows that the median income of an imprisoned person prior to incarceration was already 41% less than their non-incarcerated counterparts. These individuals, unable to pay off the fine with their disposable income, would have to find alternative ways of financing. They would have to take out loans, which would strap them with high levels of debt, or worse, resort to crime to obtain the money. Unsurprisingly, the rates of recidivism are rising. This effect is instantiated in the Alameda County of California, where the average adult in probation has faced over $6000 in fees, and the recidivism rate has topped 60%.
Furthermore, offenders sometimes have no other option but to empty their life savings account in order to pay the fees, saving that would take them an eternity to replenish. Given the financial demands of everyday life and the rising costs of living, they would recede into and remain stuck in the vicious cycle of poverty.
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Worsening Racial Disparities
Another issue is that probation fees disproportionately affect communities of color, further widening the racial gap. These disparities are best demonstrated in the case of wealth. The average American family had seven times more wealth than the average black family and five times more wealth than the average Latino one. This situation is further exacerbated by the relatively large representation of these communities in conviction and incarceration. According to the Center for American Progress, around 60% of convicted criminals are people of color, “The incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color: 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men.” For a lot of them, following incarceration is probation, which brings along with it a hefty fee.
A Way Forward
On the plus side, the judicial system is no longer blind to the damaging effects of probation fees. Several states in America are seeking to reduce the burden probation imposes on criminals by bringing about various policy changes.
Georgia is one such state. It is looking for ways to reduce the amount of time that offenders spend on probation, to both ease the burden on probation officers and funnel more resources towards monitoring more dangerous offenders. This also helps offenders reintegrate into society, thereby reducing recidivism rates. Likewise, South Dakota has been bringing changes to its probation system since 2014. Its most recent efforts include a law enacted in November that allows people convicted of lesser crimes (as in the case of Thomas Barrett) to be discharged from duty only after a year of displaying good behavior.
Minnesota’s lawmakers also have extended proposals recently that would reduce probation time for minor offences such as misdemeanors. In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors legislated the ban of probation fees, followed by a Court order to erase the fee backlog. Alameda County also voted to end probation fees and forgive the parolee debt of $26 million; these new policies will take effect from January 4, 2019.
With these four states and several others taking measures to reduce the financial burden on offenders, the way forward looks optimistic. The state may bear some of the burden of probation fees, or a concession may be given to offenders by taking into consideration their circumstances. This way, convicts are truly given a second chance.