Georgia House committee advances bill empowering for-profit probation companies

 

As Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Craig predicted at one of the court hearings concerning Sentinel Offender Services, efforts are underway to change the law governing private probation companies.

This week, members of the Georgia House’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee advanced a bill that gives private, for-profit probation companies powers that Craig ruled they didn’t have under the current law.

In September, Craig ruled that two common practices – the extension of probation sentences past the original terms and electronic monitoring – are practices the state law specifically reserves for probation officers employed by the state.

Sentinel is appealing Craig’s ruling, which affects 13 civil lawsuits pending in the Superior Courts in Richmond and Columbia counties. The plaintiffs’ attorneys also have appealed Craig’s ruling that the use of private, for-profit probation companies is not in principle, unconstitutional.

“This Act is being enacted in response to the decision of the Superior Court of Richmond County in a series of cases in which the court found limitations on the use of such probation officers,” House Bill 837 reads.

While the authors contend the General Assembly didn’t intend for the law to keep certain powers from the for-profit probation firms, they aren’t waiting for the Supreme Court to decide what the law means.

The lead attorney who sued Sentinel, John B. Long, contends Sentinel has abused its ability to seek the jailing of probationers to increase corporate profits.

Private probation is big business.

Sentinel reported to its insurance company that in a single month in 2012, its profit was more than $1.8 million. About half of Sentinel’s contracts are in Georgia.

Long points to the fees Sentinel charges probationers for electronic monitoring. While the maximum fine for a misdemeanor in Georgia is $1,000, Sentinel charges a $6 daily fee for electronic monitoring and a $12 daily fee for electronic monitoring for alcohol consumption.

A probationer can pay $2,190 or $4,380, respectively, to Sentinel for a year of monitoring.

“None of those fees go to the government. This (bill) will enable a private company to collect more from the judicial system than the government collects in fines,” Long wrote by e-mail.

“More, importantly no judge or local government officials has required any disclosure about the profits made off the backs of working Georgians through this system. This bill, if passed, will lead to further abuse of the judicial system.”

In 2000, the General Assembly passed legislation that allows local governments to either create their own probation department to supervise the terms imposed for misdemeanor offenses and local ordinance violations, or contract with private, for-profit companies.

While the legislation keeps the supervision of felony probation terms under the state Department of Corrections, one of the first private probation companies hired a member of the state’s parole board to lobby legislators to remove that restriction. Bobby Whitworth, who had also served as the commission of the prison and probation system, was convicted of public corruption.

In recent years, the Private Probation Association of Georgia has hired various lobbyists in Atlanta.

The association, private probation companies and people who work in probation services have contributed more than $140,000 to state political campaigns, according to records maintained by the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

According to the association, at the end of 2012 one in 40 Georgia residents was on misdemeanor probation.

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