January 11, 2016

Rep. Mark Takano Introduces Legislation to Address Injustice in For-Profit Probation Industry

Washington DC – Today, Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) introduced a bill aimed at stopping for-profit probation companies from violating the constitutional rights of low-income Americans found guilty of traffic violations or minor crimes. In more than a dozen states across the country, people who cannot immediately pay a fine are pushed into a for-profit probation system that can charge unlimited fees and lead to financial ruin or even jail time.

Under the current system, which is common in many southern states, people who cannot afford to pay a citation are referred to for-profit companies that charge them monthly fees until their ticket is paid. If the fine is paid incrementally, the payments are applied to both the for-profit company’s fees and the principal balance.

The result is people often pay fees equal to or greater than the cost of the original ticket. If a person fails to pay, the company can recommend they be sent to jail.

“The for-profit probation industry is preying upon low-income Americans by using routine traffic tickets to trap them in a spiral of debt, and using the threat of jail time to extract the last dollar from vulnerable people – including veterans,” said Congressman Takano. “At best, the system is guilty of extortion, and at worst it amounts to a modern day debtors’ prison. This is unjust, unconstitutional, and completely unacceptable.”  

Under Rep. Takano’s legislation, the “End of Debtors’ Prison Act of 2016," municipalities who engage with for-profit probation companies would be ineligible to receive Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne JAG) funding, which would provide a major incentive for curtailing the practice.

“Private probation companies create a two-tiered system of justice,” said Sam Brooke, deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “If you can afford to pay a $300 ticket, you are unscathed. But those living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to get by have a very different experience – they can become targets of these debt collectors masquerading as private probation companies, who far too often exploit and extort their own profits by threatening those who cannot pay with jail.

“The SPLC strongly supports the 'End of Debtors’ Prison Act of 2016’ – it will help restore fairness in our justice system by prohibiting these predatory and unconstitutional practices that unfairly punish the nation’s poor.” 

While the industry’s scope is difficult to calculate given its lack of transparency, a Human Rights Watch report estimated that in 2012 for-profit probation companies made $40 million in Georgia alone. 

Rep. Takano introduced the bill with Reps. John Conyers (D-MI), Keith Ellison (D-MN), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Hank Johnson (D-GA), and Barbara Lee (D-CA).

The text of the bill can be found here