OPINON: Probation for Profit; Little More Than a Scam

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Profiting off probation has become big business in Mississippi, and it is costing us all in ways we don't even realize.

In the early 2000s, justice and municipal courts began using private companies to collect court-ordered fines. That means that if a person gets a traffic ticket and cannot afford to pay the full amount, he is placed on misdemeanor probation until the fine is paid.

Private, for-profit companies handle this probation in Mississippi and a few other states. That sounds fine until we realize these companies make millions of dollars each year by tacking on "supervision fees" to the probation repayment plan and often use the threat of jail as a hammer for enforcement.

These private probation companies sell themselves as "offender-funded" services. They convince the public they can do a better job than using taxpayer money. Unfortunately, some operate under the cloak of the courts with little more than a handshake and no written contracts between themselves and the courts to limit fees.

These companies set up an office in the community and start collecting fines, which they forward to the court clerks. They tack on additional fees as revenue for the company. These fees can at times more than double the original fine.

A person who has the money to pay his fine in full generally is not placed on probation. However, those who are low income or on fixed incomes who can least afford additional expenses face sentences to what amounts to financial incarceration.

It might seem reasonable for a person found guilty of public drunkenness to be fined $250, right? But consider this. If a person cannot pay the fine in full, the judge places him on probation with a private probation company. The probation agent asks how much the offender can pay on his fine each month. He replies $25.

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