“Get Out of Jail, Inc.”

The New Yorker:

On a cold November afternoon, Harriet Cleveland, a forty-nine-year-old mother of three, waved me over from the steps of her pink cottage in Montgomery, Alabama. She was off to her part-time job as a custodian at a local day-care center, looking practical but confectionary: pink lipstick, a pastel yellow-and-pink tunic, and dangly pink earrings. We’d need to start walking soon, she explained. The job, which paid seven dollars and twenty-five cents an hour, was the only one she’d been able to find for some time, and was four and a half miles away. As we set off beneath loblolly pines, she recounted the events that had led me to her doorstep: her arrest and jailing for a string of traffic tickets that she was unable to pay. It was, in part, a story of poverty and constraint, but it was also a story of the lucrative and fast-growing “alternatives to incarceration” industry.

Cleveland’s troubles began in 2008, when a police roadblock went up in her neighborhood. She soon received several tickets for driving without insurance and without a license. “I knew it was wrong,” she told me, but she had to take her son to school and to travel to work. When she was unable to pay her fines, a judge sentenced her to two years of probation with Judicial Correction Services, a for-profit company; she would owe J.C.S. the sum of two hundred dollars a month, with forty of it going toward a “supervision” fee. Cleveland considered the arrangement a reprieve.

The first year, Cleveland regularly reported to the J.C.S. office with cash in her purse, whatever she could put together, handing it to a woman in a crisp collared shirt, who she assumed was working for the state. But she quickly fell behind on payments, in part because her weekly cash deliveries sometimes went solely to covering the company’s supervision fee. She had lost her full-time day-care job the previous winter, after the local Hyundai plant cut workers’ hours, and employees stopped dropping their kids off each morning. Cleveland was broke. Instead of hiring someone to fix the holes in her bedroom walls, caused by shifting prairie soil beneath the house’s foundation, she stuffed towels in the cracks to keep out the cold. In early 2012, she turned over nearly all her income-tax rebate—some two thousand dollars—to J.C.S. But by that summer her total court costs and fines had soared from hundreds of dollars incurred by the initial tickets to $4,713, including more than a thousand dollars in private-probation fees.

For much of the previous year, a J.C.S. officer had warned Cleveland that her probation would soon be revoked and her name placed on what Cleveland called the “jail list.” As she looked for full-time work, she rented an empty room in her home to an elderly stranger with dementia, and sifted through neighbors’ trash for soda cans to cash in at the scrap yard. For months, she felt hopeful that she could fend off a reckoning.

more–seriously a must-read, well-written & well-reported. Although I’ll add the serious caveat that the piece defines the underlying problem as “understaffing,” not overcriminalization.

About Eve Tushnet

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