Few answers as chief Augusta probation officer placed on leave

The Richmond County Probation Office opened in July 2016 to replace private provider Sentinel Offender Services. SUSAN MCCORD/STAFF

Augusta’s fledgling misdemeanor probation office remains in disarray with the chief probation officer put on leave Monday and the Augusta Commission voting to discuss fixes next week.

 

Several commissioners said they had no advance knowledge of Chief Probation Officer Marie Boulton’s being placed on paid administrative leave Monday by the city Human Resources office, or why, an action city general counsel Andrew MacKenzie said came from Chief State Court Judge David Watkins.

According to previous reports, Watkins became new chief state court judge at Monday’s retirement of Chief State Court Judge Richard Slaby, who helped develop the new Richmond County Probation Office. The government-run office opened last year to replace private provider Sentinel Offender Services and, by most commissioners’ accounts, was performing well.

“Six months ago, it was the best thing since sliced bread,” said Commissioner Marion Williams, whose motion to remove probation from Watkins’ control received no second Tuesday. The chief judge’s involvement cannot be eliminated, because his or her signature is required on probation operating agreements, according to the Georgia Department of Community Supervision.

Before becoming chief judge, Watkins asked Boulton to step down. She declined and hired lawyer Jack Long, the same attorney who represented plaintiffs in successful suits against Sentinel for having poor probationers jailed, sometimes years after their sentences ended, for missed supervision fees or other minor infractions.

Long said he warned city lawyers Tuesday that removing Boulton – whose appointment must be approved by the Department of Community Supervision – puts the office’s existence and ability to supervise cases in jeopardy.

He told commissioners last week that under Boulton, he’d “seen a remarkable change to the better” in how the office treated probationers and argued for it to be distinct from the court system, just as felony probation officers are employees of the state, not superior court.

Boulton, a career probation officer, had worked in the field since 1994, and with the Aiken Department of Probation and Parole since 2010.

Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said he’d heard good things about Boulton doing “an excellent job” and being “respected throughout the probation industry.” Guilfoyle also questioned how the office will continue to function without an approved, certified chief officer in charge.

Commissioner Ben Hasan, who previously pushed to remove a requirement that probation officers be certified law enforcement officers, said any one of several officers now certified by Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training could step in for Boulton, although he did not address the matter of getting Department of Community Supervision approval.

“Most of the top brass are POST certified,” Hasan said.

Mayor Hardie Davis said the situation “raises a conundrum that we find ourselves in” and offered to invite Watkins to next week’s meeting, where commissioners referred the item.

Watkins did not appear for the meeting Tuesday and might be traveling, MacKenzie said. The judge has not returned Augusta Chronicle’s requests this week for comment.

The chairman of the city public safety committee, Dennis Williams, serves on the panel with the city administrator and chief judge that governs operations in the office, although the chief probation officer serves at the pleasure of the chief judge, according to the court order creating the office.

Williams said he was not consulted about Boulton being placed on leave. City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson said while she knew it was happening, she was not asked to weigh in.

Williams said Boulton’s short tenure may have run out when a new judge took the reins and decided to make some changes. She can file a grievance, he said.

Reach Susan McCord at (706) 823-3215 or susan.mccord@augustachronicle.com.

 

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