Augusta inched closer to having a government-run probation system with a Tuesday committee vote to approve a program created by Richmond County State Court.
The committee stopped short of agreeing to fund the program - Commissioner Sammie Sias said this year’s start-up costs would run around $333,500 - and included an escape clause if state lawmakers move probation out from under the judiciary.
The change comes in light of numerous civil rights lawsuits filed against provider Sentinel Offender Services and a growing national sentiment against profiting off criminal offenders. This week, a Columbia County jury is hearing the case of a woman Sentinel arrested four years after her probation expired.
The new program as designed by Chief State Court Judge Richard Slaby give state and magistrate court judges “complete control” over the probation system and will require all probation officers to be certified law enforcement officers with arrest powers.
The Peace Officer Standards and Training-certified officers will add “professionalism” to the office, Slaby said.
Like Sentinel, the consolidated government’s probation program will include monitoring fees, subject to change by an advisory board or the chief state court judge at any time. Fees will be $32 per month to collect court fines and $35 per month when monitoring or restitution is part of the sentence, according to a court order creating the program. Probationers ordered to undergo drug and alcohol testing or use monitoring devices will be required to pay additional fees for those services.
Sias motioned to approve the program with a caveat to review it in the event Georgia legislators “flip everything on its head” with legislation now pending in Atlanta.
Slaby said if the legislation, a continuation of efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system, has the effect of moving probation out from under the judiciary, judges should replace commissioners and other local officials assigned to the local advisory committee.
IN OTHER ACTION
— A $20,000 supplement pushed by Commissioner Sean Frantom for Augusta Animal Services to educate the public about the need to spay and neuter and other requirements of the city’s new animal ordinance lost out after Sias insisted they be paired with funds for senior centers, senior feeding and a mental health program. A motion to approve $20,000 each for all five entities tied 2-2.
— Commissioner Bill Lockett blasted recent actions by Augusta Professional Firefighters Association he said cost Fire Chief Chris James a job offer in York County, S.C. Lockett called statements made by the group “slander” while City Administrator Janice Jackson said she would soon review a thumb drive of “evidence” she received Monday regarding James’ decision to buy fire trucks now requiring frequent repairs. Union President Charles Masters said the group was in good standing with the International Association of Firefighters and “will continue to protect the community in every way, including their tax dollars.”
James said after the meeting he’d selected the low bid for the trucks as other governments had done and many were having similar problems.
— Flying drones will again likely be banned during Masters Week, after the Public Safety committee voted to modify proposed year-round restrictions from the law department to cover only the tournament period. The commission did the same thing last year, banning it April 2-13, 2015.