Sarah Stillman investigates the industry of extra-carceral justice options, which include private-probation companies, halfway houses, and residential treatment centers. Her article “Get Out of Jail, Inc.” in the June 23, 2014, issue of The New Yorker, looks at the legality of a system of "offender-funded justice" that seems to profit from offenders, many of whom cannot pay their fees.
Stillman explains why courts are increasingly turning to private companies to collect fees and fines: “These courts are so starved for cash and they’re so desperate…to use the courts as revenue centers that they’re pursuing money from even some of the poorest people.”
On whether these companies are targeting indigent offenders: “Often what you’re finding is that these companies really wouldn’t make a whole lot of money if they weren’t able to collect from indigent people. I mean, that’s really a lot of their business practice, revolves around the very poorest clients. That’s why they’re there in the first place is that they weren’t able to pay their tickets or weren’t able to pay their court costs.”
Some defendants, unable to pay their fees and fines, have become desperate to avoid jail. In her reporting, Stillman talked to one professor who had conducted a survey of people who were on private probation and found that “about a third of them had resorted to committing a crime simply to try to pay their fees and fines to get out of jail or to ensure that they didn’t go to jail.”
Some have compared this system of “offender-funded justice” to 19th century debtors’ prisons: “I spoke to many attorneys who pointed out if this were happening in any other context – if this were credit card companies or if this were other industries that were going after people for debt – we would certainly all say, ‘Hey, this is a debtors’ prison. This is unconstitutional.’ But because it’s happening in the context of courts being the ones collecting the cash, somehow it’s managed to proliferate.”