Traffic courts, private probation may be issues

Decriminalizing traffic offenses and re-examining the use of private probation companies in Georgia are potential issues to be raised by the winner of next month's Senate District 22 special election.

 

The Augusta Chronicle, in following up on an investigation of the fines and fees paid by traffic violators and other misdemeanor offenders in Richmond County State Court, asked the candidates for their thoughts.

Any change in the system would have to come from the Legislature, and the four candidates seeking the open seat say they might take up the issue.

Georgia has the harshest penalties for traffic violations in the United States. Any traffic offense -- from drunken driving to driving 1 mph over the speed limit -- can result in 12 months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Most traffic violations result only in fines and surcharges, but if the violator cannot pay the fine on the court date, he must make monthly payments set by a private probation company that also collects a fee for itself. If that money is not paid, it could mean a jail cell.

Libertarian candidate Taylor Bryant said he thinks it's a regressive system that's unfair to people who have to pay more because they are poor, and to taxpayers who foot the bill for jailing people.

He said he believes the General Assembly should look at decriminalizing traffic offenses and find a better way to deal with nonviolent crimes because of the incarceration costs. A person in jail isn't paying taxes or contributing to his family, he said.

Candidate Hardie Davis, who served three years as a state representative, said the economy and lack of jobs are the most crucial issues the General Assembly faces.

Putting people to work at good-paying jobs is one of the best ways to reduce crime and improve conditions in the community, Mr. Davis said.

Mr. Davis said he did not hear any discussion in the House about decriminalizing traffic offenses in the past three years. He said it could be an issue for the General Assembly, but he thinks the use of private probation companies should be addressed first because it affects low-income people who can never get out from under the fees that pile up.

Candidate Harold Jones, who was the Richmond County State Court solicitor before resigning to run in the special election, has backed decriminalizing some traffic offenses for several years. He says it would streamline the court process and free up time to handle more serious cases. He estimated that about half of the 23,000 traffic offenses the court dealt with last year were minor violations.

However, Mr. Jones said he is not in favor of going back to a government-run probation system, which also charged probation fees.

Even if most traffic offenses are decriminalized, private probation still would be needed to monitor the most serious cases.

Candidate Sandra Suetta Cannon Scott said she would want to hear what the people living in District 22 had to say about the matter before making any decisions. The General Assembly needs to consider how any change in the law affects residents, she said.

The list of traffic offenses and potential punishment should be reviewed before determining what is fair, Ms. Scott said.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

PRIVATE PROBATION

Though most people who commit traffic violations will only pay a fine, traffic offenses in Georgia are misdemeanor crimes that are punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

In Richmond County State Court, people who can't immediately pay fines and surcharges in full are placed on probation. The county contracts with a private probation company, Sentinel Offender Services, which collects a monthly fee from every person on probation for misdemeanor and traffic offenses. Any violation of the conditions of probation can result in time behind bars.

 

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