The probation industry is booming in Georgia. Private companies supervise people sentenced to probation for misdemeanors or violating city ordinances. In exchange for collecting court fines, the probation companies are allowed to extract monthly “supervision fees” from probationers. Nearly 600 courts have adopted this “offender-funded” model, which saves courts from having to hire their own probation officers. In 2016, probation providers collected at least $87 million in fines for local governments and pocketed an estimated $34 million in supervision fees, says Slate.
For-profit probation companies have long portrayed themselves as cost-effective providers of a public service. Emails obtained via Georgia’s Open Records Act show the business model works by preying on low-income people. Georgia has more than 150,000 people on misdemeanor probation at any given time, many of whom are monitored for what the Southern Center for Human Rights calls no legitimate public-safety reason. The offender-funded scheme generates tremendous revenue because Georgia law creates so many offenders. The state has criminalized traffic violations and other minor offenses that most states treat as civil infractions. This means someone stopped for a broken tail light, changing lanes without using a turn signal, or playing her car stereo too loudly can be sentenced to a year in jail. Most offenses carry fines of up to $1,000, plus hundreds more in surcharges.