Missouri’s Privatized Probation Services – Part 1: What is private probation?

Members of Empower Missouri’s Criminal Justice Coalition have been discussing Missouri’s use of private probation and the impact on our communities. Missouri is one of about nine others who have outsourced probation services. In conversation with family and friends,  we realized there are a lot of us who have never heard of the practice. This is the first piece in a brief series where we hope to shed some light on what private probation is, identify some of the challenges (spoiler – there are many), and create space to explore what we can do together to remedy those issues. 

So, what is it?

Jail versus Prison? Probation versus Parole?

Jail can be used to describe a place for those awaiting trial or held for minor charges, whereas prison describes a place for people post-conviction, often with more serious crimes.

There are some details about the difference between probation and parole legally, and may vary between states and federal systems. The basic difference in most cases, most simply put, is that probation is often used instead of serving jail time. Parole happens when someone has served a prison sentence and is being conditionally released. A person is only after successful completion. Any violations can mean jail time or a return to prison.

Private probation is exactly what it sounds like. It is the delivery of probation supervision and control that has been outsourced by the state and contracted to a third-party business. The word business is an important one to keep in mind here. Unless it is a nonprofit or a B-Corp or the like, the bottom-line driver of all businesses is profit and they are only accountable to their shareholders and/or owners. 

How does it work?

Many people believe that the state, city, or county (our tax dollars) pays for most if not everything once a person has been jailed or imprisoned. This is far from true. (See examples at the bottom of the page.) Anyone who has been involved in the criminal legal system has accrued fees and fines, regardless of guilt or innocence or severity of harm. If you are involved with the system, you are racking up a bill. 

Private probation business is sometimes referred to as being offender-funded because they earn revenue by charging such fees to the people under their supervision. This can include paying for drug screens (regardless of whether their charges are drug-related), office visits, monitoring devices, and more. 

We know that Missourians who are poor and marginalized have a much higher likelihood of having interactions with the criminal legal system. Private probation companies create even more financial issues, and hit those least able to cover the costs. Expecting folks who are struggling as a starting point to make regular payments is both unrealistic, and a recipe to get that person even more involved with the system. The for-profit nature of business creates an impossible cycle unless you are able to pay. And many people are simply unable to do that.

Why does this matter? 

Part two of this series will explore these answers in more detail. For now, the main point is this: unregulated, for-profit probation businesses are using the vulnerability of a person facing one of the toughest times in their lives as a source of profit. Especially if you are not wealthy, this puts tremendous financial strain, emotional stress, and often arbitrary requirements on a person (and their families) who need more support than they do additional punishment. 

Probation is designed to monitor and evaluate, not to punish. It is intended, in fact, to be a tool to keep a person out of jail or prison – a person the system decides does not need that level of punishment and has been given time to prove it. Folks from all backgrounds generally agree probation should not be a time to create even more undue hardships for a person to navigate if we want that person to be successful. 

Who (and how many) does this impact? 

This seems like a simple question, but the reality is that searching easily accessible and publicly available information does not provide a simple answer. So, what do we know? The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates 1 in 66 adult U.S. residents were under community supervision at the end of 2020. The same report breaks down state information. If we are in a room together with one hundred average Missourians, at least 1 or 2 of us will be “under community supervision” (on probation or parole). 

We know the number of people on probation, but there is a gap in the data for private probation for misdemeanor offenses since that is managed at the county level.  While the precise reach of Missouri’s private probation companies is unclear, the negative impact on an individual and their family is not, and will be explored in more detail in our next part of this series.


Examples of the kinds of fines and fees you may accrue while being involved with the criminal legal system in the U.S. Note: a person can be jailed for their inability to pay. 

  • Electronic monitoring
  • Probation or supervision
  • Public defender or legal costs
  • Room and board
  • Traffic ticket
  • Jail book-in fees
  • Bail investigation fees
  • Public defender application fees
  • Drug testing fees
  • DNA testing fees
  • Jail per-diems for pretrial detention
  • Court costs
5 Responses
  1. Dan Viets

    Court costs can be a major burden in themselves. Often $500 or more in felony cases. The legislature likes to add to them.

    1. Holly Honig

      Thanks for weighing in, Dan. Indeed, that is very true. Costs of the entire system are a major burden. If you’re interested, here is a terrific report from the Brennan Center for Justice that dives into the national problem specific to reentry and highlights the ways these costs are actually ineffective at raising revenue (contrary to some beliefs). There is mention of Ferguson/Missouri. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/steep-costs-criminal-justice-fees-and-fines

  2. Jim Eschen

    I’m interested in specifics re. the for profit company that provides Missouri’s probation services. Please advise.
    Thanks.

    1. Holly Honig

      Absolutely. We are learning as we go. I can tell you that it is not just one company. There are at least three that I’ve been able to discern so far. Part of our series will be (hopefully) providing more context about the private companies, but will focus mostly on the impact they are having on Missourians. I’m glad to share with you what we know as of right now. Feel free to message me at [email protected]. Otherwise, please stay tuned. We’re so glad you’re here and concerned!

  3. JESSICA BRAMMER

    I think missouri private probation services is a joke and unconstitutional why should we have to pay a third party fees for us being in trouble I mean how ridiculous is that ok now not only having fines and court cost now pay 50 monthly to be in trouble hmm… umm ok why should we pay their wages and since we are shouldn’t that mean they are employed by us so we are their boss??

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