By Adam Geller and Sharon Cohen, AP National Writers
MURFREESBORO, Tennessee — Outside the $200-a-week motel room that Steven Gibbs and his family call home, the afternoon sun sparkled. Inside, though, he had the curtains pulled tight. After working third shift at a round-the-clock McDonalds, his wife, Debbie, sat on the edge of one bed, her eyes closed. But the hour didn’t matter.
“Half the time I’m scared to go outside the door,” said Gibbs, 61, a former construction worker jailed twice since late 2013 after he couldn’t pay hundreds of dollars in probation fees for driving on a suspended license. Despite a court order barring the county and a private probation company from jailing him again, those fears lingered.
“I don’t trust none of them anymore,” Gibbs said, in late January. The company continued charging him fees until last week, when a judge agreed to put him on a new plan, supervised instead by the court, to pay down fines he owes the county.
Probation is supposed to substitute for jail or prison, requiring offenders to report regularly and maintain good behavior. But in this fast-growing county outside Nashville and more than a dozen states, probation for misdemeanors is a profit-making — and increasingly contentious — venture.
Those with cash to pay fines when they’re convicted often avoid supervision, while poor offenders can be snared in a cycle of debt and punishment. Critics of for-profit probation say it can create a modern “debtor’s prison.”
Rutherford County is just the latest hotspot in a widening debate over this system, which has spurred numerous lawsuits demanding change. Some communities have abandoned for-profit probation, others are vowing reform.