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‘Trail ’Em, Nail ’Em, and Jail ’Em’: Issues Private Probation and Parole

by Jo Ellen Nott

Vince Schiraldi talks private probation and parole in his new book Mass Supervision: Probation, Parole, and the Illusion of Safety and Freedom. When Schiraldi was selected to run the troubled New York Department of Corrections (“DOC”) during the COVID pandemic crisis, the New York Times called him “a cerebral reformer who has spent an illustrious career in public life trying to end mass incarceration.”

Schiraldi’s tenure as commissioner of the New York DOC was short-lived at six months. He arrived late in the game, in June 2021, to fix a jail that had been getting worse for years and then exploded into waves of violence and death because of the pandemic. Schiraldi initiated programs and reforms to help guards whom the New York Times described as “exhausted, scared and quick to go on the offensive” and to help detainees who are often “ignored, debased, violated and easily triggered.”

Newly elected Democratic mayor Eric Adams did not support Schiraldi’s efforts to help the situation of both guards and detainees at Rikers Island and replaced him with the more hardline ex-cop Louis Molina. Schiraldi went on to become the Secretary of the Maryland Division of Youth Services and to write this book about the national problems in probation and parole.

An excerpt from Mass Supervision: Probation, Parole, and the Illusion of Safety and Freedom was published in September 2023 in Literary Hub. The online aggregator of contemporary literature called Schiraldi’s book about the privatization of America’s criminal justice system “an unholy marriage of fiscal conservatism and law and order.”

The excerpt in Literary Hub talks about the widespread practice of paying for probation supervision across the U.S., with over 48 states imposing costs on those under probation and parole. Schiraldi writes: “Paying to be on probation has flourished in small towns throughout the South (where private companies often receive the proceeds) as well as in big cities (where more often the recipients are government probation or parole departments).”

The numbers are depressing for those navigating the justice system and spell potential personal economic disaster for those caught in its clutches. Forty-nine states require or allow individuals on probation or parole to pay for the cost of their electronic leashes. According to Schiraldi, “Over a thousand courts in the U.S. assign the supervision of people convicted of misdemeanors to private, for-profit probation companies. Hundreds of thousands of people are supervised on privately run probation annually in the United States.”

Private probation systems have come under scrutiny for their lack of due process protections and the potential for abuse. The profit motive in private probation encourages those companies to make probation conditions unnecessarily harsh to increase the chance that the person on parole breaks one of the many frivolous rules. The profit motive also prompts companies to prolong probation terms and to incarcerate individuals to extract money from them and their families. The only winner is the bottom line of the private probation company.

The conflict of interest within private probation is strikingly obvious, as these companies often determine the ability of individuals to pay fines and fees while at the same time profiting from their financial struggles. Pay-only probation is a practice that unethically targets the poorest and most vulnerable among us and contradicts the intended purpose of probation as an alternative to incarceration. Instead of serving as a rehabilitative tool, it becomes a fee-collection mechanism, doubling or tripling the original costs for those unable to pay immediately.

Schiraldi relates the story of Thomas Barrett, a white, middle-aged, former pharmacist from Georgia who found himself trapped in a pay-only probation nightmare. After becoming addicted to some of the same drugs he dispensed, Barrett lost his job, his family, and his middle-class life. He ended up on the streets and had several brushes with the law over public drunkenness.

His nightmare started when he stole a $2 can of beer. Before his arrest, he had found a $25-a-month subsidized apartment and was barely getting by on food stamps. After his arrest, he could not afford the $50-public-defender cost the county required, so he was fined $200 and sentenced to 12 months on probation with electronic monitoring. Because he could not pay the electronic monitoring startup fee of $80, he had to spend two months in jail. His Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor paid the $80 to Sentinel Offender Services to get him out of jail.

The costs of the electronic monitoring were well beyond what Barrett could cope with as an individual selling his blood plasma to survive. The electronic monitor, $12 a day, plus a service fee to Sentinel of $30 a month, added up to around $400 a month. He skipped meals to pay for his probation costs and was frequently too weak to donate blood.

By February 2013, Barrett owed Sentinel $1,000 in back fees, five times his original $200 court fine for the stolen $2 beer. Sentinel filed a technical violation on Barrett for not paying his fines and fees, and a judge sentenced him to one year in jail. Barrett’s response? “To spend 12 months in jail for stealing one can of beer? It just didn’t seem right.”

In his book, Schiraldi questions the rationale behind charging individuals for probation and parole, especially considering the financial challenges faced by the majority of those in the justice system. He points out the ill-considered imposition of fees on those already economically vulnerable can result in driving individuals to commit more crimes, transform probation officers into bill collectors, strain the relationship between officers and those under supervision, and lead to increased punishment, ultimately sending the individual into incarceration—a counterproductive and illogical outcome for community supervision programs.  


Sources: Literary Hub, New York Times, PBS



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