Senator received support from probation firm owner, bondsmen group

Bond fee measure followed donation from lobby group
State Sen. Jesse Stone, now a candidate for judge, headed a committee that handled a measure on probation companies.

Less than a week before a Senate committee stripped a bill of provisions that limited the fees private probation companies can charge, the owner of such a firm wrote a letter of recommendation for the Waynesboro state senator who headed the committee and is in line for a judgeship that will supervise people affected by the legislation.

In addition, three days before the legislative session began, state Sen. Jesse Stone received his largest single campaign contribution from the Georgia As­so­­ciation of Professional Bonds­­men, according to his campaign contributions reports.

During the session, the Re­publican sponsored a bill that increases the fees these companies charge to post bonds, which are generally set by judges.

Stone is one of two candidates to become the next Burke County State Court judge. The court contracts with a private company, CSRA Pro­bation Services, to supervise those on probation for misdemeanors.

On Feb. 18, the owner of CSRA Probation Services, Mi­chael Popplewell, wrote a recommendation letter for Stone to the governor. Stone said he knew Pop­ple­well intended to write the letter.

Stone qualified to run for re-election on March 6. On March 7, he announced that he would seek the State Court judgeship. Stone said Popplewell’s endorsement had nothing to do with what happened to the private probation bill after it was assigned to the judiciary non-civil committee, which he heads.

Stone said last week that he was trying to reach a compromise between those supporting private probation and those opposed to it. It isn’t perfect, Stone said, but both sides got some of the things they wanted.

“I respectfully disagree with Sen. Stone,” Sarah Geraghty, of the Southern Center for Human Rights, wrote in an e-mail. “This was a bill brought at the behest of the private industry. It was a huge win for the industry, which stands to profit enormously from its passage appointment.”

Chris Albin-Lackey, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch whose work led to a scathing report about private probation, called the bill “a shameless giveaway to the probation industry, not a compromise.”

“There isn’t an ounce of real reform in it,” he wrote.

As Stone pointed out, he didn’t introduce the bill. In its first draft, it directly referenced a ruling by Augusta Judicial Cir­cuit Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Craig, who is assigned to more than a dozen civil rights lawsuits filed against the private probation company Sen­ti­nel Offender Services in Richmond and Columbia counties. Craig ruled in September that the law doesn’t allow such companies to perform electronic monitoring or to seek the indefinite extension of probation sentences.

State lawmakers dumped the responsibility of supervising misdemeanor probationers onto local governments in 2000. They can create their own probation departments or contract for the services. With private companies charging local governments nothing for their services – their income derives from the fees probationers pay – it became the option of choice for most.

If the governor signs the bill into law or doesn’t veto it by the end of the month, private probation companies will be able to seek imprisonment of probationers who don’t pay their fees. Human Rights Watch estimated that private probation firms in Georgia generated $40 million in revenue last year. According to an application to renew its insurance, Sen­tinel’s revenue in June 2012 was more than $5.58 million. Most of Sentinel’s contracts are in Georgia.

According to state Eth­ics Commission records, the Pri­vate Probation Asso­cia­tion of Georgia had eight lobbyists working this year’s legislative session at a cost of more than $10,000 each. The Georgia Association of Pro­fessional Bondsmen has its own lobby. According to Stone’s campaign finance disclosure, the lobby gave him a $2,600 donation Jan. 11. The lobby also gave $2,600 to Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, who was Stone’s co-sponsor of the bill that was passed by the House and Senate.

The three representatives who received campaign contributions also voted for the bill. House Speaker David Ralston also received a $2,600 donation. The speaker generally doesn’t vote unless there is a tie.

Stone said the donation had nothing to do with his sponsorship of the bail bondsmen bill. He said it was in response to a case where a bonding company’s escrow requirement was drastically increased. Current law says the cash escrow amount is approved by the sheriff.
That bill, which is also awaiting the governor’s signature, allows companies in business for at least 18 months to limit the escrow to no more than 10 percent of its bail bond liability. The bill also increased their fees from 12 percent for bonds of $10,000 or less to 15 percent of bonds, regardless of the bond amount. It also guarantees a minimum $50 fee per bond.

Stone said he receives contributions from a lot of people and organizations. According to campaign disclosure reports, he has had numerous contributors since his first run for state Senate in 2010. Stone said he has received contributions from groups that pushed for legislation he would not support.

Stone said he takes an interest in the judicial system and pointed to his sponsorship of a bill regarding the no-contact provisions in cases of domestic violence and another that increased the penalty for contempt of court. If Stone becomes the next Burke County State Court judge, he would contract for private probation services, set bonds, deal with domestic violence cases, and have the power to hold someone in contempt of court.

Referring to the commendation letter from a private probation company owner and a bail bondsmen lobby’s campaign contribution, Stone said, “I don’t see these as conflicts of interest.”

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EXEMPTIONS QUESTIONED

Though state Sen. Jesse Stone contends the private probation bill doesn’t prevent a judge or local government from releasing information about the companies, Gov. Nathan Deal has expressed concern about the secrecy provision of the bill.

The bill specifically exempts private probation company reports, files, records and “papers of whatever kind relative to the supervision of probationers” from the state’s Open Records law.

Sarah Geraghty, of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said HB 837 exempts the amount of fees charged, the number of people under supervision, the amount of restitution collected, the number and reasons for the termination of probation sentences, and the number of warrants issued against probationers.

– Sandy Hodson, staff writer

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