June 1, 2020 — Report

Applying consumer laws to commercial bail, prison retail, and private debt collection

Increasingly, Americans who have contact with the criminal legal system find themselves deprived not only of their liberty but also of their property, as the system imposes onerous fines and fees on criminal defendants and their loved ones. Today, the resulting criminal justice debts often are owed not only to the state, but also to a vast network of private companies profiteering from the criminalization of poverty and communities of color.

This newer form of criminal justice debt stems from financial charges levied throughout a person‘s contact with the criminal legal system. From commercial bail agents to prison retailers (the private companies—including telecommunications providers, technology companies, commissary operators, and money transmitters—that charge incarcerated people and their families for basic or essential goods and services), the American corrections industry imposes a range of high-cost services on low-income consumers facing extreme pressures and limited or no choices. Individuals forced to choose between high-cost bail bonds or time in jail, between using the exorbitantly high-cost phone calling company to which the county has granted a prison monopoly or not talking to a child, or between getting their money upon release on a specific debit card or not at all often are involuntary or painfully exploited consumers.