19-year-old Kevin Thompson didn’t think that he was going to jail the day he pulled his car out of the garage to go to his job in an auto-repair shop. He was pulled over for a speeding ticket and found out that he had not properly renewed his license. When Thompson appeared in traffic court, he was unable to pay the $810 fine and was put on a 30-day probation period to pay his ticket. The judge handed his case over to Judicial Correction Services, Inc., a for-profit corporation that oversees the collection of fines and the probation of people who have committed minor infractions, such as traffic tickets.
Thompson met with his parole officer from JCS weekly and made payments totaling $85, most of which he borrowed because he was unemployed. JCS kept $30 of those payments as a fee, so that amount didn’t count toward the total owed. Eventually, Thompson told his probation officer that he was unable to pay, and she informed him that he would have to appear before a judge to have his parole revoked. He ended up in a jail cell for owing $838 in fines and fees.
What Thompson experienced is called “pay-only” probation. It’s part of the growing private business of what’s euphemistically dubbed “incarceration alternatives,” a lucrative industry that ranges from electronic monitoring to drug treatment and halfway houses. Companies like JCS argue that they are providing an essential service by providing “offender-funded” supervision that doesn’t rely on tax dollars, as well as rehabilitative programs like “Financial Management” (for those convicted of writing bad checks) and “Job Readiness” (“Job skills such as goal-setting, job searching, the application process, grooming, and interviewing skills are discussed and practiced.”).