Volume 53

Private Probation and Incarceration of the Poor

by Austin McCullough

Fred Robinson was placed on probation for eleven months and twenty-nine days after he was unable to pay a $2500 fine for misdemeanor marijuana charges. The court in Rutherford County, Tennessee placed his case under the care of a private probation service—a for-profit company managing Mr. Robinson’s probation. Over four years later, Mr. Robinson is still paying back his debt. He has been unable to pay off the fine and the additional fees and penalties that the private probation companies have levied against him. Moreover, Mr. Robinson suffers from health conditions that make him dependent on a disability public benefits. The only violations he committed during his probation were failures to pay these fines, which can lead to jail time. As such, Mr. Robinson, like so many other indigent probationers, is trapped in a system that ultimately extracts far more than just the initial court-imposed fine and can eventually lead back to incarceration. These private probation practices have come under scrutiny in recent years. Though due process challenges have largely failed, recent cases comparing private probation to unconstitutional debtors’ prisons and bills in state and federal legislatures suggest solutions to ending private probation.

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