Criminal defendants who cannot afford adequate defense, especially when facing serious charges, are at a disadvantage in court. While the prosecution is spending money and resources to investigate, collect evidence, and build a case, a defendant without an experienced defense attorney may be left unable to compete in the criminal justice system. Anew report published by Human Rights Watch indicates that the poor may be disadvantaged in more ways than one.
According to the study, there are more than 1,000 court systems using private probation services. This means that there are private companies profiting from sending defendants to jail for a night or longer. Private companies are also being used to monitor cases and warrants. Our Birmingham criminal defense attorneys are dedicated to protecting the rights of defendants and to raising awareness involving key civil rights issues. The private probation services program in Alabama sheds light on the disadvantages faced by defendants and the potential benefits gained by private companies in the criminal justice system.
The watchdog non-profit has published a report focusing on practices in 10 states nationwide, including Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. According to the publication, the private companies offering “probation services” make profits like debt collectors in supervising defendants and in pursuing those with warrants. As indicated by the report, the private system unfairly discriminates against the poor and those who cannot buy their way out. The companies are an inexpensive way to make sure that court fines are paid. They take over all collection action for low-level offenders and offer payment plans for those who cannot afford fines.
Essentially, the system is comparable to lender schemes where the indebted probationer must pay fines and probation fees (around $35 or $40 per month) to the for-profit company. Probationers who cannot keep up with payments are sent to jail. Naturally, the poorest defendants will spend the longest period of time on probation and are more likely to end up in jail. While the industry asserts that the third-party agencies are an effective and affordable solution, supporters do not acknowledge the potential rights violations at stake. Private probation systems are outside of the court system creating potential for abuse because they lack oversight and are profit-driven.
Currently, there are civil lawsuits waged against private companies in Alabama basing their allegations, based in part on a 1983 Supreme Court ruling that held a probationer cannot be sent to jail simply for not paying a fine if they are too poor to pay. The Human Rights Watch report indicated that there is weak judicial oversight and companies routinely seek and obtain arrest warrants for those who do not pay fines. Many of these warrants are granted without adequate review. In many cases, desuetude alleged offenders are being sent to jail for traffic offenses because they cannot pay private company fees. Others are forced into bankruptcy.
Any defendant who has been charged with a crime should consider the long-term implications of a conviction, including probation. In the state of Alabama, convicted offenders may face the additional threat and burden of third-party collectors and potentially unconstitutional jail time.