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Privatization of Services in the Criminal Justice System

Highlights

An estimated 10 million Americans owe more than $50 billion from their involvement in the criminal justice system.

Privatization throughout the justice system has exacerbated the cycle of mandatory fees, nonpayment, and consequent additional fees. Private companies, often with little to no oversight, can have economic incentives to engage in practices that prolong an individual’s involvement in the system in order to extract as much money as possible. This report details aspects of privatization in pretrial conditions of release, diversion programs, community supervision, public prisons and jails, and collection of criminal justice debt.

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Key Findings:

  • There are over 25,000 bail bond companies in the United States; the industry profits about $2 billion a year.
  • Private companies provide pretrial services and are allowed to collect supervision fees from the accused; it’s not uncommon for an individual to wait six to 12 months before trial, and monthly supervision fees can reach hundreds or thousands of dollars.
  • Some jurisdictions receive a percentage of the fees from for-profit programs for making referrals; the prosecutor’s office in Maricopa County, Arizona, received $2 million a year from a marijuana diversion program.
  • Private companies that perform community supervision charge individuals $30 to $60 a month; they often assess individuals to determine what other services they need, adding more fees.
  • Before banning site commissions (kickbacks), New Mexico charged $10.50 for a 15 minute collect call; after its elimination, the same call cost 65 cents, a 94 percent decrease.
  • 74 percent of jails banned in-person visits when they implemented video visitation; video visitation can cost $10 for 30 minutes or $0.20 to $1.50 per minute.
  • A private company that operates the commissionary system in West Virginia had a 10.9 percent profit margin compared to the three percent profit margin of Wal-Mart.
  • Conduct such as coercive and dishonest practices that is illegal by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act  for other types of debt collection is permissible for fines and fees imposed in the criminal justice system. 

Recommendations:

  • Limit the use of fees.
  • Enforce ability to pay requirements.
  • Increase oversight of private companies.
  • Limit or eliminate the ability of private companies to directly charge individuals for their services.
  • Increase transparency by private companies and the government agencies that hire them.
American Bar Association
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