Our rotten probation system
Beyond the Rhetoric
Our rotten probation system
By Harry C. Alford NNPA Columnist
Back in the good old days, probation was publicly funded. The process was simple and probation officers’ mission was to assist offenders and help them assimilate into the general population. Rehabilitation was the goal – a noble goal indeed. Like our current prison system, probation is no longer about rehabilitation. It has turned into a profit game and recidivism makes business better. Yes, probation is being privatized and local, state and federal governments no longer have to be responsible for funding the program. The programs are being turned over to private corporations. The funding is coming from the offenders.
Most offenders have lived in poverty for the majority of their life. It is hard, if not impossible, for people living below the poverty level to be able to fund their own probation. This fact makes our new system evil and oppressive. It doesn’t improve our society by rehabilitating our offenders but ensures that the offenders are forever in trouble. The chances of escaping are remote. Because private probation services are motivated by income the heavier the caseload, the more the revenue. Public probation systems would be overwhelmed and challenged with limited funds. In fact, private agencies have less incentive to report violations of probation because their income would shrink as the offender returns to incarceration.
When an offender is released from prison in Indiana, he usually gets a period of house arrest. This is when he has a monitor or bracelet put on his ankle to track his location. He cannot leave his residence without getting permission and the GPS-enabled monitor will alert authorities if he goes astray. He will be charged $80 per week for the rental of the bracelet. From the very beginning, he has a monthly bill of $320. There is also a start-up fee of $25. He is required to physically report daily to a downtown office for blood testing (drugs and alcohol). He is charged a $5 daily fee for this. So now, he has a monthly bill of $470 (bracelet and daily fee). How does a person is released with no job and is probably is indigent with a family that lives in poverty pay that $470 per month?
The U.S. Department of Labor has a few great programs to assist ex-offenders. Congressman Danny Davis (D – Ill.) has led the charge in assisting offenders as they return to their communities. Employers can be eligible for sizeable tax credits for giving offenders another chance to live a productive life via gainful employment and even a career. The big problem is the programs are hardly enforced or even marketed to the employers. Most don’t know about them or do not know how to process the paper work. Gainful employment is the key to helping offenders get out of this “catch 22”. This opportunity sits on a shelf and that is a tragedy.
Periodically, a former prisoner may find a short-term work at minimum wage. Housing, food and travel back and forth for daily reporting, plus the $470 per month becomes an impossible task. When they fall behind in their payments, the private probation firm reports it to credit reporting agencies. Broke, under pressure with no permanent job and terrible credit will make most offenders long to go back to prison. Life is totally miserable unless they have friends or relatives who help out. Most don’t make it and return to crime as a means of income. Thus, the recidivism rate is going through the roof in all of our communities.
These private probation firms are making serious money from these offenders. The offenders are cash cows and are, in fact, treated like chattel or indentured servants. Corruption comes into play also. Having absolute power over the offenders gives the firms the opportunity to even extort more money from the offender. Thus, they are pushing them to find fast cash via criminal activity. Acting on a class-action suit filed in 2010, a judge recently took control of the municipal court of Harpersville, Ala. after finding the probation company and the court operated “a judicially-sanctioned extortion racket”.
NBC News did a thorough investigation of this activity, calling the private probation transgressions “Cash Register Justice.” NBC also found that Sentinel Offender Services is the largest offender management service in the state of Georgia, collecting more than $30 million in 2009, according to company documents.
In terms of corruption, the temptations are immense. One example is a member of the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles was convicted on public corruption charges for accepting a bribe from a private probation agency. I am certain that this goes on at a rapidly growing rate.
America, we need to clean this mess up. Good people are being hurt.