This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

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.

As the graphic below shows, the result is a system that unjustly impacts the poor.

In the town of Greenwood, where the average income is $14,000, the board of supervisors voted to end its contract with the for-profit probation company after just eight months. In October, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in Mississippi against the same company, Judicial Correction Services, saying it runs what amounts to “a modern day debtor’s prison.”

The For-Profit Probation Maze (Stephanie Stamm)

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

This article is part of our Next America: Criminal Justice project, which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.