Governor Nathan Deal vetoes private probation bill

Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed legislation Tuesday that would have expanded the powers of private probation firms and shrouded their operations in secrecy.

If Deal hadn’t vetoed House Bill 837, it would have become law Wednesday.

In his veto, Deal noted the bill would have exempted key information about private probation services from the state’s Open Records Act. “I favor more transparency over private probation services ...

“In addition, it is my understanding that the Supreme Court of Georgia has under its consideration an appeal that would address the role of private probation services ... this legislation seeks to have a preemptive impact on any decision in that appeal,” the governor wrote.

The appeal Deal cited, and others, are from civil rights lawsuits filed in Richmond and Columbia counties against private, for-profit probation company Sentinel Offender Services. The plaintiffs allege Sentinel’s practices have resulted in false arrests and improper imprisonments of poor people.

In September, Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Craig ruled state law does not allow private probation firms to provide electronic monitoring services or ask a judge to extend a probation sentence beyond its original term.

Sentinel’s attorneys have appealed Craig’s ruling. The judges of the Richmond County State Court, which contracts with Sentinel as its probation provider, have filed briefs in support of Sentinel’s position.

In response to Craig’s ruling, House Bill 837 was introduced.

According to state Ethics Commission’s records, the Private Probation Association of Georgia had eight lobbyists working this year’s session at a cost of more than $10,000 each.

Despite a scathing report on private probation by Human Rights Watch earlier this year, the General Assembly passed the bill in March.

On Friday, state auditors who watch over government funds and conduct performance audits released a report on the use of private probation firms in Georgia. The audit found numerous problems with the probation services and a lack of oversight by the courts.

The lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the civil rights lawsuits, Jack Long, was thrilled with Deal’s veto Tuesday.

“... While the privatization of government service in some areas is cost effective and is in the best interest of taxpayers, our courts and judicial system that protect our freedoms and liberty don’t need to be outsourced to profit driven companies,” Long wrote in an e-mail.

The Southern Center on Human Rights, which lobbied against the bill, commended the governor for his veto.

The use of private probation firms has led to the abuse of people who cannot immediately pay off fines, wrote Sarah Geraghty of the center. People who cannot pay end up on probation, which carries additional fees that can double the amount of money a person of means would pay for the same offense, Geraghty wrote.

“The misdemeanor probation system in Georgia is broken. It prioritizes money collection over public safety and rehabilitation,” Geraghty wrote.

She urged courts and law makers to adopt the recommendations made in the state audit report released last week – a systematic approach for accountability.

Audit finds problems with private probation operations
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