Fines and fees for probation services levied by money-starved towns and the for-profit businesses that administer the system are increasing, the New York Times reports. The result is that growing numbers of poor people are ending up jailed and in debt for minor infractions. “With so many towns economically strapped, there is growing pressure on the courts to bring in money rather than mete out justice,” said Lisa Borden, a Birmingham, Al., lawyer. “The companies they hire are aggressive. Those arrested are not told about the right to counsel or asked whether they are indigent or offered an alternative to fines and jail. There are real constitutional issues at stake.”
Half a century ago, the Supreme Court ruled that those accused of crimes must be provided a lawyer if they could not afford one. In misdemeanors, the right to counsel is rarely brought up, even though defendants can run the risk of jail. Probation companies promise revenue to the towns, while saying they also help offenders, and the defendants often end up what the Times describes as “lost in a legal Twilight Zone.” In Childersburg, Al., lawyer William Dawson has sued local officials and Georgia-based probation company, Judicial Correction Services. “The Supreme Court has made clear that it is unconstitutional to jail people just because they can't pay a fine,” Dawson said.