Justice “cost points”: Examination of privatization within public systems of justice

This study explores how local and state governments allow corporations to generate profits from public criminal justice institutions and examines how that structure harms people forced to pay for private services. The paper uses two case studies – the Seattle Municipal Court’s monitoring of people with DUI convictions and Washington State Department of Corrections’ relationship with prison tech company JPay – to initiate a dialogue about the “ethical considerations” of such arrangements and to outline a “research agenda” for the future.

You can read the full text of the study here.

The case for privatization lies on the premise that market forces will lead to more efficient, lower cost service delivery. Yet contracts and actual costs are often not transparent to the public to determine whether this is the case. Nor is it clear what incentives exist that might lead to socially undesirable and unethical outcomes, or what are the potential harms of these types of partnerships to individuals and their families and to the legitimacy of systems of justice.

Key Findings
  • As soon as people come into contact with the criminal legal system, “cost points” begin: public defender fees, bail bondsmen and bail payment fees, and so on.
  • Additional cost points crop up during incarceration: fees for phone or video calls, money transfer fees, fees for electronic messages and digital entertainment, and commissary purchase mark-ups.
  • Finally, cost points accrue following release: private collectors of fines, fees, and restitution can charge interest; victim panel courses can incur fees; probation, parole, and electronic monitoring fees; alcohol and drug testing fees; and substance abuse and mental health services can be charged to “users.”
  • In Seattle, the municipal court allows a private collections agency to add collection fees between 14.95% and 21.85% when collecting fines and fees from drivers with DUI convictions. Drivers may also be required to participate in electronic monitoring, which costs between $7 and $18 per day in addition to fees for installation, service calls, and removal costs; and they may be required to install an ignition interlock device, which can lead to thousands of dollars in costs. Indigence does not allow defendants to have fees waived.
  • Because defendants may only purchase mandated services from court-approved vendors, the vendors experience virtually no competition, which inflates prices further.
  • JPay manages financial accounts of incarcerated people and also sells services (e.g., e-mails and digital music) that may only be purchased through JPay accounts. JPay also sells access to video calls at a rate of $7.95 for 30 minutes and phone calls at a rate of $3.30 per 30 minutes.
  • Corrections vendors operate monopolies within prisons (“captive markets”), restricting serious competition and allowing departments of corrections to offer new technological services without absorbing any costs in their own budgets.
Future Research Questions
  • When people face additional costs from privatization of public services, how do they make ends meet? Are they making trade-offs that make it more difficult to stop behaviors that led to their criminal legal involvement in the first place?
  • Do the burdens of criminal justice debt negatively affect people’s connections with family and friends?
  • How do state and local codes structure public-private contracts? How much profit are private entities allowed to extract from incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people?
  • How many “justice system vendors” exist? How do they differ from one another? What are their “selling points” that convince public entities to contract with them? How are jurisdictions deciding whether or not to contract with vendors?
  • Are such public-private contracts necessary or desired? Are they cost-effective (socially, fiscally)? What standards should practitioners and policymakers establish to guide when and with whom they should enter into contracts?
Alexes Harris, Tyler Smith, Emmi Obara, University of Washington