In the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood, a for-profit company promised city leaders it could take over its cash-strapped probation system without any expense to taxpayers. Not only that, but the company said it could actually turn a profit for itself, and the city, by collecting fines.
Just eight months later, nearly 10 percent of the town’s 15,000 population was on probation for minor offenses like traffic violations and owing fees to the company. By the time city leaders realized the damage, the company had entitled itself to profits of at least $48,000 a month, all paid for, as one county official said, “off the backs of the poor people.”
When it contracted with the company, Greenwood adopted what’s called an “offender-funded probation” system. More than a dozen states in the U.S. use it, and each year hundreds of thousands of people are sentenced to probation by private companies. The appeal of these programs is that the private companies offer to operate a local court’s probation program at no cost to taxpayers.
Instead, the offenders pay for it all themselves through “supervision fees.” These often unnoticed charges earn the corporations a healthy profit, sometimes ranging from $35 to $100 in monthly added costs. And if offenders can’t pay, companies may use the threat of jail to compel them.