RoboCop nailed it 27 years ago: privatizing police functions makes a rising crime rate profitable.
Sarah Stillman in the New Yorker notes that
Missouri was one of the first states to allow private probation companies, in the late nineteen-eighties, and it has since followed the national trend of allowing court fees and fines to mount rapidly. Now, across much of America, what starts as a simple speeding ticket can, if you’re too poor to pay, mushroom into an insurmountable debt, padded by probation fees and, if you don’t appear in court, by warrant fees. (Often, poverty means transience—not everyone who is sent a court summons receives it.) “Across the country, impoverished people are routinely jailed for court costs they’re unable to pay,” Alec Karakatsanis, a cofounder of Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit civil-rights organization that has begun challenging this practice in municipal courts, said. These kinds of fines snowball when defendants’ cases are turned over to for-profit probation companies for collection, since the companies charge their own “supervision” fees. What happens when people fall behind on their payments? Often, police show up at their doorsteps and take them to jail.
From there, the snowball rolls. “Going to jail has huge impacts on people at the edge of poverty,” Sara Zampieren, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me. “They lose their job, they lose custody of their kids, they get behind on their home-foreclosure payments,” the sum total of which, she said, is “devastating.” While in prison, “user fees” often accumulate, so that, even after you leave, you’re not quite free. A recent state-by-state survey conducted by NPR showed that in at least forty-three states defendants can be billed for their own public defender, a service to which they have a Constitutional right; in at least forty-one states, inmates can be charged for room and board in jail and prison.
America’s militarized police forces now have some highly visible tools at their disposal, some of which have been in the spotlight this week: machine guns, night-vision equipment, military-style vehicles, and a seemingly endless amount of ammo. But the economic arm of police militarization is often far less visible, and offender-funded justice is part of this sub-arsenal.
Then again, if citizens are unwilling to pay for a truly public force, the police may be de facto privatized, relying on whatever funds they can rustle up through fines and fees. Sara Kliff at Vox notes that
In Ferguson, court fees and fines are the second largest source of funds for the city; $2.6 million was collected in 2013 alone. That’s become a key source of tension. There is a perception in the area, [advocate Thomas] Harvey says, that the black population is targeted to pay those fines. Eighty-six percent of the traffic stops, for example, happen to black residents — even though the city is 67 percent black.
Harvey, director of ArchCity, reported that “I can’t tell you what’s going on in the mind of a police officer but, in the mind of my clients, they’re being pulled over because they’re black. . . . They’re being pulled over so the city can generate revenue.”
In a brief Q&A with Kliff Harvey said
The most charitable reading is that the courts don’t know the impact they’re having on peoples’ lives. For people like me this system works. If I got a traffic ticket I would pay $100 to a lawyer to represent me. I would get my speeding ticket turned into an excessive vehicle noise charge, pay a fine, the lawyer would get paid and the municipality too. It’s the easiest transaction. But if you’re poor, that system hurts you in ways they don’t seem to have considered.
And if you look at Ferguson and Florissant, between those two municipalities they expect to net $4 million from these fines annually. That’s no small amount for towns of 25,000 and 50,000. It’s become a line in the budget and they’re relying on it. That’s the real crux of things. The courts are supposed to be the place where you administer justice, not rely on for revenue. That sense has been lost at some level in the community. [emph added]
And the peoples’ representatives don’t help when they praise prisons as job creators.
Yes, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin tweeted that a prison “would be an important piece in the economic future of northern IL”.
I should note that the second tweet, about a 500% increase in fed prison pop is juxtaposed as if it were a kind a praise, but in digging back thru the Senator’s Twitter feed to March 31, the multiple tweets on the topic make it clear that he considers this a problem and touts the Smarter Sentencing Act as a solution.
Well, great, Senator. But who’s going to fill that northern Illinois prison if that act passes?
It should be a shanda on our people—on Americans—every time we build a prison, a failure of our politics to create a society in which people may live as human beings.
Yes, we need the police and we need prisons because there are those among us who seek to dominate and harm us. But what we have already should be enough, should be more than enough.