They say that crime doesn’t pay. But “they” weren’t talking about the booming for-profit industry that feeds off the criminal justice system and mainly poor defendants for its very survival. For those inside this exploitative industry, crime pays very handsomely.
A privatization movement sweeping through the criminal justice system in several states, including Missouri, offers services that take much of the post-conviction burden off authorities to monitor those placed under court monitoring. This is the industry that supplies and monitors ankle bracelets, or performs drug tests that determine whether a probationer is staying clean.
Since these are businesses, the primary mission is profit, not justice. The goal is to maximize the amount of time a “client” (the probationer) will require their services. In the cause of justice, they inflict some of the worst injustices of all.
A report in February by Human Rights Watch, titled “Set Up to Fail,” documented multiple cases in which privatized probation-monitoring systems in Missouri, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee continually milk probationers to maximize company profits, concocting violations to ensure longer sentences and fees that the companies split with the courts.
The Post-Dispatch’s Tony Messenger has documented multiple additional cases, suggesting nothing has changed since the Human Rights Watch report was issued. In one case, a young man was caught stealing a lawnmower, and a Caldwell County judge sentenced him to two years’ probation monitored by a private company that could drug test him at any time. Since it was in the company’s financial interest to identify every possible way that he might violate his probation, that’s exactly what the company did, until the court debt mushroomed from $80 to $7,325, including jail fees.
Another case, in Jackson County, involved a defendant subjected to pretrial drug testing by a company that used a shoddy lab that didn’t meet federal standards. The results kept showing the defendant tested positive for drug use. When the defendant’s samples were tested by a separate lab that meets federal standards, they came up negative for drug use. But negative results don’t generate profits. Labs that meet federal standards are expensive and reduce profit margins.
The Human Rights Watch report documented the systematic way these companies can turn a simple $500 court fine into thousands of dollars in fees for monitoring companies. If the defendant can’t pay, debtors prison awaits.
Even in the few times when appeals judges recognize the injustice and order lower court judges to cease such unfair sentencing practices, Missouri law allows them to continue. State Rep. Justin Hill, R-Lake Saint Louis, has tried to whittle away at the abuses legislatively. But much more work needs to be done, and it won’t happen unless justice-minded constituents tell their state lawmakers that these laws are unacceptable.
Until the laws are rewritten, crime will most definitely pay for the businesses preying on this deeply flawed system.