by Mick Dumke
But Rauner himself has financial ties to a company with a very different focus: punishing poor people for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses like traffic violations, often until they're so burdened with fines that they end up behind bars.
Rauner, a first-time candidate, made a fortune as a leader of the private-equity firm GTCR, and its many business dealings have been closely scrutinized since he launched his campaign for governor. In particular, questions keep coming up about Rauner's role in the firm's investments in nursing homes, and its potential liability for deaths that occurred there.
Though Rauner retired from GTCR in 2012, he's still an investor in it. Not long after he left the firm, it acquired a company called Correctional Healthcare Companies, which provides medical and mental care, including "behavioral programming," for prisons and jails that want to save money by outsourcing such services.
Illinois is one of the states that's contracted with CHC. As the Better Government Association has reported, the mental care it's provided at juvenile detention facilities has been the subject of a lawsuit—though the suit was filed against the Quinn administration. Records show that the state has paid CHC about $21 million since 2012.
But CHC owns another company that does far more controversial work. Judicial Correction Services doesn't operate in Illinois, but in a number of states in the south it's a leading provider of what's called private or offender-funded probation. Simply put, the company contracts with local courts to oversee people on probation for misdemeanor offenses. The arrangement is attractive to budget-cutting officials because there are no direct costs for taxpayers: the offenders cover expenses by paying monthly fees to be supervised.
The thing is, these aren't hardened criminals—they're people snared in the court system for committing low-level offenses. And the problem with asking them to pay is that many of them are on probation because they didn't have the money to pay the fines for their misdemeanors in the first place. The ACLU calls the practice "court-sanctioned extortion."
The private probation industry—and Judicial Correction Services in particular—has been the subject of investigations by Human Rights Watch, the Nation, and the New Yorker, among others. From the Human Rights Watch report:
"Pay only" probation is used for offenders who would not be on probation at all if they had more money. They pose no threat to public safety and require no supervision. Many are guilty of offenses that carry no real threat of jail time such as speeding, driving without proof of insurance, noise violations and the like. At sentencing, judges who use probation this way ask offenders whether they can pay their fines and court costs immediately and in full. Those that can walk free and wash their hands of the criminal justice system. Those that can't are put on a long-term payment plan and sentenced to probation.
Such probationers are then responsible for monthly fees of $35 to $40, on average, and if they can't keep up, they fall further into arrears. The New Yorker's Sarah Stillman detailed the experience of a 49-year-old mother in Montgomery, Alabama, named Harriet Cleveland: she was put on probation with JCS after being unable to pay off the fines for driving without insurance or a license. From there her hole only got deeper:
In early 2012, she turned over nearly all her income-tax rebate—some two thousand dollars—to JCS. 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.
Cleveland ended up without a job and in jail. And there are many others like her. "Vast numbers of arrest warrants are issued every year for offenders on private probation," Human Rights Watch reported. "In Georgia alone, 124,788 arrest warrants were issued for offenders on private probation in 2012." JCS and other private probation companies likely bring in $40 million a year in that state alone.
Rauner's campaign wouldn't comment on JCS or the work it does. Spokesman Mike Schrimpf stressed that Rauner had left GTCR by the time it acquired the company and "has pledged to put all his assets in a blind trust if elected governor."
Schrimpf also blasted Quinn for a former prisoner-release program and the state's ongoing efforts to place some parolees on home confinement. "Unfortunately, Pat Quinn shortchanged public safety and released violent offenders early who went on to commit more horrendous crimes," Schrimpf said. "Bruce will make public safety a top priority."
Quinn's camp responded by pointing to a report that concluded he was not responsible for the "premature release" of dangerous criminals who'd committed additional crimes.
The truth is that neither candidate was talking much about public safety or criminal justice issues until Rauner slammed Quinn in an ad this week.
That's unfortunate. Though private probation companies aren't operating in Illinois, the state's criminal justice systems have extensive, expensive, and dangerous problems.
In the Cook County criminal court, defendants face their own means test to determine whether they end up behind bars: those with money to post bond can walk free, while those who lack it are locked up. It's one reason the local jail population remains stubbornly high.
Last year Quinn closed two state prisons to save money. Though the governor has insisted that the state correctional system isn't overcrowded, the prisons that remain open were designed for fewer than 34,000 inmates, but were holding nearly 49,000 as of mid-July. More than 19 percent were in on drug charges—more than for murder or any other offense.
And the prison population is projected to climb to more than 50,000 by next year, according to the Department of Corrections.
As it is, the budget for the corrections department is more than $1.3 billion for the current fiscal year.
Rauner has vowed to cut taxes while also getting the budget into shape—but he's all but called Quinn a murderer for putting some prisoners on home confinement.
Something has to give.
Privatizing and cutting services can save taxpayers money in the short run. But of course there's another way to save resources while ensuring justice: making sure that the only people in the criminal justice system are those who need to be there.