In Orange County, Calif., the probation department’s “supervised electronic confinement program,” which monitors the movements of low-risk offenders, has been outsourced to a private company, Sentinel Offender Services. The company, by its own account, oversees case management, including breath alcohol and drug-testing services, “all at no cost to county taxpayers” according to the NY Times.
Sentinel makes its money by getting the offenders on probation to pay for the company’s services. Charges can range from $35 to $100 a month.
The company boasts of having contracts with more than 200 government agencies, and it takes pride in the “development of offender funded programs where any of our services can be provided at no cost to the agency.” Sentinel is a part of the expanding universe of poverty capitalism. In this unique sector of the economy, costs of essential government services are shifted to the poor.
In addition to probation, municipal court systems are also turning collections over to a national network of companies like Sentinel that profit from service charges imposed on the men and women who are under court order to pay fees and fines, including traffic tickets (with the fees being sums tacked on by the court to fund administrative services).
When they cannot pay these assessed fees and fines – plus collection charges imposed by the private companies — offenders can be sent to jail. There are many documented cases in which courts have imprisoned those who failed to keep up with their combined fines, fees and service charges.
“These companies are bill collectors, but they are given the authority to say to someone that if he doesn’t pay, he is going to jail,”
What should be done to interrupt the dangerous feedback loop between low-level crime and extortionate punishment? First, local governments should bring private sector collection charges, court-imposed administrative fees and the dollar amount of traffic fines (which often double and triple when they go unpaid) into line with the economic resources of poor offenders. But larger reforms are needed and those will not come about unless the poor begin to exercise their latent political power. In many ways, everything is working against them. But the public outpouring spurred by the shooting of Michael Brown provides an indication of a possible path to the future. It was, after all, just 50 years ago — not too distant in historical terms — that collective action and social solidarity produced tangible results.