Both houses of the Georgia General Assembly have now voted in favor of a bill that empowers for-profit private probation companies and conceals from the public information on how much probationers pay local governments and the companies and even the number of people on probation.
Efforts by some legislators to institute what they saw as safeguards and accountability provisions were stripped from the bill once it moved to the Senate’s non-civil judiciary committee, led by Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro. The lawyer is one candidate on a short list to fill the State Court judgeship in Burke County – a court that contracts with a private probation company.
With little debate, the House voted 105-62 on Thursday to accept the bill as altered. The Senate passed the bill Tuesday.
The push to change the state statute governing local governments’ ability to hire private probation companies to supervise people convicted of misdemeanors – which includes nearly all traffic offenses in Georgia – began last year as civil lawsuits were filed in Richmond and Columbia counties challenging the constitutionality of private entities performing what amounts to a judicial function.
On Sept. 16, Augusta Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Craig granted class-action status to people who sued Sentinel Offender Services alleging the company caused false arrests and incarceration.
Craig found that Georgia law did not give private probation companies the same powers as state probation officers who supervise people convicted of felonies. He ruled that the private firms could not supervise electronic monitoring services, nor could they seek the extension of misdemeanor probation sentences beyond the original expiration date.
The bill passed this week directly addresses those points: Misdemeanor probation sentences can be extended indefinitely, and private probation companies can supervise a variety of electronic monitoring and collect additional fees.
The bill, if it becomes law, makes clear that if a judge imposes probation for a misdemeanor, he must require the payment of probation fees to the private companies, and a probationer can be found in violation and incarcerated if those fees aren’t paid.
The bill gives the judge the ability to waive supervision fees or require community service instead if the judge finds undue financial hardship at the time of sentencing or any time during the probationary period.
If a probationer is found in violation, and the judge revokes the rest of his sentence, no more money will be owed. However, if he is revoked for only part of the sentence, all of the money is due in full after his release from jail unless the judge waives or reduces the amounts.
An e-mail to the Private Probation Association of Georgia seeking comment on the legislation was not returned Thursday.
Attorney Sarah Geraghty, writing on behalf of the Southern Center for Human Rights, called the bill “a gift to the private probation industry.”
“It further expands the reach of private probation companies, while simultaneously barring the media and public from access to even the most basic information,” Geraghty wrote. “I can think of no rational reason to hide such information from members of the public whose tax dollars fund the courts of this state.”
The bill gives the chief judge or governing body the right to see such information, but it specifically exempts that information from the Open Records law.
Augusta attorney Jack Long, who spearheaded the lawsuits challenging private probation, said by e-mail that the legislation will not deter the pending litigation. Craig’s rulings are on appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court. Long agreed with Geraghty that the sealing of information about private probation is detrimental to the public interest.
According to the Private Probation Association of Georgia, in the last quarter of 2012 more than 254,000 people were serving misdemeanor probation terms.
Sentinel’s profit for one month in 2012 was more than $1.8 million. Private probation companies derive income from the fees paid by probationers.
Walter Jones of Morris News Service contributed to this story.