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    Earlier this year Human Rights Watch published a report exposing abuses committed by offender-funded private probation companies—businesses hired by local governments to supervise and electronically monitor misdemeanor offenders placed on probation, and that directly charge the offenders for these services. Such arrangements are attractive to local governments because they cost taxpayers nothing and they reduce county administrators’ workloads. But HRW’s report highlights the dangers of such arrangements, including harrowing anecdotal evidence of people being charged thousands of dollars in supervision fees after offenses as minor as driving without a license or stealing a can of beer, and ultimately being jailed when they could not keep up with payments.

    While the HRW report focuses primarily on Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, it also notes that offender-funded private probation companies are active in at least 12 states, including Michigan. That list of states, including the Michigan reference, was reprinted in numerous reports by media such as The Guardian and The Atlantic.

    The Offender-Funded Private Probation Industry

    First, some background. In many states, including Michigan, the responsibility for incarcerating and supervising persons convicted of misdemeanor offenses falls to the counties. (Misdemeanors are minor crimes, such as shoplifting or traffic offenses; maximum penalties are generally a year or less of incarceration, which is served in county jails rather than state prisons.)

    In the 1970s and 80s, a number of states, beginning with Florida in 1975, passed laws permitting probation supervision to be carried out by private entities (this journal article includes a good historical overview). The idea was to cut costs and provide relief for overworked county staff. In recent years two important components have been added to this arrangement: the use of advanced electronic monitoring technology and the practice of funding these services completely through payments by offenders.

    The HRW report describes the scale to which this offender-funded private probation industry has grown:

    “In Georgia, a state of less than 10 million people, 648 courts assigned more than 250,000 cases to private probation companies in 2012. In Tennessee, probation companies supervised a minimum of 50,000 offenders that year, and probably at least 80,000. Probation companies in Alabama work with well over 100 courts across the state.”

    Private Probation in Michigan

    Gauging the exact scale of this industry in Michigan is difficult. States such as Georgia and Tennessee have established state-level bodies to track and regulate the industry. But that’s not the case in Michigan. Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan told this site that his agency “is not involved” in regulating how counties choose to supervise offenders on probation.

    However, an Internet search turned up this map and contracts between at least two counties—Ingham and Oakland—and Sentinel Offender Services, one of the largest offender-funded private probation companies in the U.S.

    The Michigan Policy Network spoke at length with Mary Sabaj, Manager of Ingham County’s Community Corrections Advisory Board, about her agency’s relationship with Sentinel. She says working with this company Sentinel has saved the county money—and also allowed inmates to get out of jail sooner.

    At the time publication, 87 Ingham County offenders were on electronic monitoring with Sentinal, according to Sabaj. She said some of them were out on pre-trial probation, while others had qualified for early release from sentences being served at the county jail.

    “Since January 1 of 2009, the county has saved $92,570,” by using electronic probation monitoring services provided by Sentinel, Sabaj said. Those calculations are based on the $59.17 the county says it spends per jail-bed per day—expenses that aren’t incurred when offenders are sleeping in their own beds with electronic monitoring devices they pay for out of their own pockets.

    “We try to negotiate the best rates, for the offenders as well as ourselves,” said Sabaj. According to the fee schedule contained in Ingham County’s contract with Sentinel, offenders must pay between $6.50 and $11.85 per day, depending on the equipment used. (This is in line with industry norms reported in the HRW report.)

    In addition to providing technology, Sentinel also provides two staff people who work at the Ingham County jail to monitor offenders’ movements, meet with them, handle payments, and carry out other supervision tasks.

    Technically, inmates are supposed to pay the county back for staying in jail, too. However, Sabaj says it’s easier to collect fees from those on probation. “They want to be out,” she says. “It allows them to be with their families, to work, and to contribute to our community and actually pay taxes.”

    Sabaj says the sorts of abuses reported in the HRW report don’t happen in Ingham County. “We try not to let their bills run up—that kind of thing doesn’t help us,” she said. Ingham County’s contract with Sentinel states that it has set aside up to $50,000 a year to cover costs for indigent offenders who are unable to pay the probation fees.

    Is More State Oversight Warranted?

    The HRW report highlights the importance of adequate government supervision of private probation services:

    The problems described in this report are not a consequence of probation privatization per se. Rather, they arise because public officials allow probation companies to profit by extracting fees directly from probationers, and then fail to exercise the kind of oversight needed to protect probationers from abusive and extortionate practices.

    Such oversight is important because according to several commentators, these arrangements represent a regressive tax on the poor that can all too easily morph into outright abuse. (For an extensive look at this argument, read this paper.)

    Michigan has come under fire in recent years from groups such as the ACLU for allegedly permitting “debtors’ prisons.” The ACLU recently filed a case on behalf of a Port Huron woman who sought out law enforcement authorities’ protection against her abusive boyfriend, only to be jailed because she had an outstanding traffic fine. While these cases do not appear to involve private companies, the HRW report notes that in other states private probation companies have in some cases morphed into aggressive collections agencies.

    While the use of offender-funded private probation services may well bring benefits for taxpayers and even for offenders themselves, the potential for abuse should not be underestimated. Michigan’s state government would do well to consider recommendations from the HRW report such as collecting and publishing data at a court-by-court level and establishing a clear regulatory framework and robust oversight mechanisms.

    Sources

    ACLU. In For a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons. October 4, 2010. https://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights-racial-justice/penny-rise-americas-new-debtors-prisons

    Cohen, Andrew. “The Private Probation Problem Is Worse Than Anyone Thought.” The Atlantic, February 5, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/02/the-private-probation-problem-is-worse-than-anyone-thought/283589/

    Gambino, Lauren. “Thrown in jail for being poor: the booming for-profit probation industry.” The Guardian, March 2, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/money/2014/mar/02/poor-for-profit-probation-prison-georgia

    Human Rights Watch. Profiting from Probation: America’s “Offender-Funded” Probation Industry. 2014. http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us0214_ForUpload_0.pdf

    Ingham County Board of Commissioners. Agenda for October 10, 2013, Item 3. http://bc.ingham.org/Portals/BC/2013 Resolutions/13-424.doc

    Natapoff, Alexandra. “Misdemeanor Decriminalization.” Loyola Law School Los Angeles, September 10, 2014. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/Delivery.cfm/SSRN_ID2494414_code332621.pdf?abstractid=2494414&mirid=1

    Oakland County Purchasing Division. Professional Service Contract Number 003526 between County of Oakland and Sentinel Offender Services. http://www.oakgov.com/purchasing/Contracts/003500 - 003999/Sentinel Offender Services.pdf

    Samilton, Tracy. “ACLU says ‘pay or stay’ is modern-day version of debtors prisons.” Michigan Radio. September 9, 2014. http://michiganradio.org/post/aclu-says-pay-or-stay-modern-day-version-debtors-prisons

    Schloss, Christine S. and Leanne F. Alarid. “Standards in the Privatization of Probation Services: A Statutory Analysis.” Criminal Justice Review, Vol. 32 No. 3, April 2007. http://www.sagepub.com/hanserstudy/articles/05/Schloss.pdf

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