The audit by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts Performance Audit Division also uncovered incidents of abuse by private, for-profit probation firms that mirror allegations lodged in civil rights lawsuits filed in Richmond and Columbia counties.
The audit comes on the heels of action by the General Assembly to pass a bill that increases the powers of for-profit, private probation firms and allows the firms to operate in secret. It will become law Tuesday unless Gov. Nathan Deal vetoes it.
As the auditors noted in the report, some 175,000 Georgia residents are serving misdemeanor probation sentences for crimes ranging from domestic violence and drunken driving to failing to signal a lane change or shoplifting a piece of candy. Private probation firms supervise 80 percent of misdemeanor probationers in Georgia.
The state auditors found courts provided limited oversight of probation providers, often hired without a competitive bidding process. Courts often failed to spell out the probation providers’ duties and responsibilities, including some provisions required by state law.
The audit does not name which courts it audited.
In some cases probation providers failed to supervise or ensure probationers paid fines, fees, surcharges and restitution or complied with other court-ordered conditions, such as community service, according to the report.
Auditors also found cases in which probationers were required to continue paying probation fees after their probation terms had expired. One probation provider had a policy to extend probation past original terms. The court knows because in monthly reports to the court, it had a category of probationers “expired, but paying,” according to the audit report. Some of those people were still paying years after their terms expired.
If a probationer fails to comply with the payment plan, he is considered non-compliant. Auditors noted that 75 percent of the 390 case files they examined revealed probationers had fallen behind in payments at some point during their probation period.
If a probationer becomes non-compliant, a probation office can request an arrest warrant. Auditors found probation officers seeking warrants for non-payment but not for other significant non-compliance with probation terms.
“... Our review of cases notes and warrant requests found several instances in which providers appeared to improperly use warrants or the threat of arrest to compel payments,” the report reads.
“The arrest of a misdemeanor probationer actively reporting, not considered a flight risk, and not posing a public safety threat is a questionable use of resources. It can cause substantial costs to both the probationers and local taxpayers,” the report continues.
As the auditors noted, a probation violation warrant does not provide a probationer the opportunity to appear before a judge before he is incarcerated.
Auditors also found that while a majority of probationers fell behind in payments at some point, rarely did providers take adequate steps to determine if the probationers were able to pay.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 31 years ago in a Georgia appeal that a court cannot incarcerate a probationer for failing to pay a fine or restitution unless the court can prove he did so willfully.
One of the civil rights lawsuit filed in Richmond County Superior Court against Sentinel Offender Services was on behalf of Thomas Barrett. He pleaded guilty in July 2012 to shoplifting a $2 can of beer. Barrett, who had been homeless for three years, sold his plasma to try to make payments but he repeatedly fell behind and was jailed at taxpayer expense, according to the lawsuit.
The state auditors were also critical of the lack of guidelines, and compliance when guidelines existed, for how probationer payments are allocated. The auditors found some providers collected their fees before court fines, surcharges and restitution.
Auditors also found problems with how some of the courts allowed the probation providers to convert all or part of a probationer’s fine and surcharges to community service. “This allows a provider to unilaterally reduce a probationer’s financial obligation to the court, ensuring limited funds paid by the probationer will be allocated to the provider’s supervision fee.”
The contract between Richmond County and Sentinel Offender Services gives the private firm the ability to convert fines to community service. It also prioritizes the allocation of payments so that Sentinel first collects any its past due fees, then the state crime victim fee, restitution, and then the court ordered fine and surcharges.