Private Probation Costs, Compliance and the Proportionality of Punishment: Evidence from Georgia and Missouri

In misdemeanor courts, private probation companies provide supervision in at least a dozen states. Private probation is often accompanied by a number of unique supplementary costs, all of which individuals sentenced to private probation are responsible for. Using data from interviews with individuals on private probation and local criminal justice officials and court ethnographies in Georgia and Missouri, the authors document those costs. Their findings indicate monetary sanctions, despite being a crucial way of demonstrating compliance, create substantial challenges for individuals on private  probation and can lead to additional sanctions including the extension of supervision and incarceration.

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Key Findings: 

  • Monthly costs for private probation at the misdemeanor level, vary widely and are set locally by courts and providers; monthly costs typically do not cover the costs of treatment and related programming. 
  • Compliance costs include fees for programming, such as substance abuse treatment, rehabilitative classes, and drug testing assessed by the judge as a condition of supervision. 
  • There is substantial variation in the frequency and the nature of programming ordered and the costs assessed by the misdemeanor courts.
  • Individuals are often sentenced to multiple sanctions with different costs and requirements for compliance.
  • The costs for private programming were often not described to participants at the time of sentencing
  • Drug treatment was the most common sanction associated with private probation.
  • Participants found it difficult to comply with sanctions that were often multilayered, time limited, and required frequent trips to court
  • Judges weighed compliance with legal financial obligations heavily as a key consideration in deciding outcomes on probation; noncompliance with conditions due to high costs or other factors was rarely considered. 
  • People unable to pay fines and court costs can be placed on pay-only probation for continued monitoring and court debt collection; the longer it takes to pay, the more they pay. 
  • Probation sentences can also exacerbate collateral consequences such as credit problems or difficulty securing employment or housing.
Beth M. Huebner and Sarah Shannon
The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences