More local governments are turning to private collection companies to recoup overdue court fines, but it’s a model that raises serious conflict of interest concerns and can double or triple defendants’ underlying debt, according to a recent federal report.
“This ‘offender-funded’ model creates financial incentives for private probation companies to keep debtors in the system,” the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights notes in a recent annual report on fines and fees. What’s more, these private companies may work with little or no oversight from courts or local governments, according to the commission.
“This may lead to accountability issues and facilitate potential corruption,” the commission noted in the report, which was issued last month and titled “Targeted Fines and Fees Against Communities of Color”.
The role of private debt collectors in the fines and fees system seems to receive little attention in the broader conversation about modern-day debtors’ prisons. Even if not a focus of the commission’s report, the few paragraphs dedicated to collection companies are a noteworthy inclusion. These collections contracts can dramatically increase defendants’ outstanding fines and fees, making it harder to climb out of debt and avoid jail for failure to pay.
For cash strapped localities, though, outsourcing collections is a free and easy way to bring in needed revenue. That’s because it’s the debtors who pay the bill. Already owing outstanding fines and fees, now they have to pay a special surcharge, often around 25- to 30-percent, to cover the collection company’s services.
DebtorsPrisons.com will be reporting more on these agreements in coming weeks, following public records and interviews with affected individuals. But for now, it’s safe to say recordings and meeting minutes examined so far show little discussion among elected officials about the impact such hefty fees have on constituents.