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Audit finds problems with private probation operations

Friday, April 25, 2014 10:52 AM
Last updated Monday, May 5, 2014 1:47 PM
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An audit to determine how well misdemeanor probation operations run in Georgia found courts and providers lacking in every regard, according to the 73-page report released Friday.

Click here to read the full report (pdf format)

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.

the back story

Misdemeanor probation services

BACKGROUND: In 2000, the General Assembly changed the law and transferred responsibility for misdemeanor probation services to local governments. The governing bodies can establish their own probation department or contract with private firms. With private firms charging the governments nothing — their income comes from the fees probationers pay — 85 percent of the courts contract for probation services.

DEVELOPMENTS:

More than a dozen civil rights lawsuits have been filed against the private probation company Sentinel Officer Services, challenging the constitutionality of courts contracting with for-profit firms to perform a judicial function, and alleging false arrest and incarceration.

In September, Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Craig ruled state law does not allow private probation firms to conduct electronic monitoring services, or seek court orders that indefinitely extend a probation term.

The civil cases are on appeal. They are on the Georgia Supreme Court’s calendar for June.

Pending legislation that effectively counters Craig’s ruling and extends the powers of private probation companies and wraps them in secrecy will become law Tuesday unless the governor vetoes it.

Comments (13) Add comment
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Marinerman1
4857
Points
Marinerman1 04/25/14 - 11:08 am
12
1
As I Have Said...

It is my sincere hope that Sentinel is sued into bankruptcy. There is no valid reason for them to amass $1.6M in ONE month ! There are some valid probation companies, and I understand that do provide a service. I just lump them into the pile of .... as payday lenders. Their lobbyists got to the legislators, one supporter of which, is set to be a Judge in Burke County. Slimeballs. I have already sent my email to Governor Deal, asking his to veto this bill. There needs to be MUCH stronger controls and visibility for this industry, and Sentinel in specific.

gargoyle
17258
Points
gargoyle 04/25/14 - 02:00 pm
9
0
The only way to get this

The only way to get this shake down viable is to buy the lawmakers. The mob would be proud.

Navy Gary
1615
Points
Navy Gary 04/25/14 - 04:59 pm
9
0
Close all

Close all these private probation companies. They are just like/worse than drug dealers and pimps, as they all three feed off of the misery of others.

dickworth1
954
Points
dickworth1 04/26/14 - 05:00 am
5
0
New judges
Unpublished

If the current judges can't figure out a way to stop putting these petty crimes into 10 day sentences, maybe served on weekends and no probation, then get new judges. From all I have read, this sentinel outfit needs to go and a company that can keep up with doing what is right for all concerned be put in place with a review board meeting once a month to keep tabs on the new company.

JUST A CITIZEN
9
Points
JUST A CITIZEN 04/26/14 - 07:00 am
7
0
SENTINEL

I have a friend who has been tried to pay on his probation, but they would only take the amount that he was given. they told him he had to pay the full amount or he would go to jail. that was in 2007. He still has a warrant and he offered them $3000 on the $3600 fine, but they refused it. Now he cannot get a job or anything, how is this fair after 7 years???? is this legal? They need to be shut down.

Bodhisattva
6235
Points
Bodhisattva 04/26/14 - 07:51 am
2
1
The obvious answer is?

Privatize even more government services. They can start with the new private debtors prisons they're bound and determined to create with scams like this.

Graymare
3212
Points
Graymare 04/26/14 - 07:53 am
5
0
Nothing will happen until

Nothing will happen until some "prominent" member of society or their family get "inconvenienced" by one of these horrible companies. Ok, someone does wrong and gets fined but let's not illegally drag it on and on. Smells like someone, somewhere is getting a kickback.

Navy Gary
1615
Points
Navy Gary 04/26/14 - 08:18 am
6
0
They should abolish

They should abolish these firms and also abolish misdemeanor probation. How in a free country can someone be given probation for a failing to signal a lane change? What a joke. It's obvious with the type of income being generated by these firms that someone is getting greased. We should not be subject to this kind of abuse.

mooseye
266
Points
mooseye 04/26/14 - 04:03 pm
0
2
The

probation for lessor offenses is because the fines and court costs are ridiculously high, and the court would rather have its money than to lock you up and have to pay for that. They put you on probation so that you have time to pay up the big money and now with the private companies taking care of the probation , it is out of their hair completely.
You can't really blame it on the private probation operators. They are in business to make money. If they stick to what is allowed by law, that is.
When it comes to complaining, it is the law breakers that do that, so they just laugh it off and say if you don't like the punishment don't break the law. Hard to argue with, right?

corgimom
32625
Points
corgimom 04/26/14 - 08:01 pm
0
4
How about don't commit crimes

How about don't commit crimes in the first place, and you won't have this problem?

I don't laugh it off, but intelligent people know that breaking the law causes many problems that can last a long, long time. Like this.

corgimom
32625
Points
corgimom 04/26/14 - 08:03 pm
0
3
The fines and the court costs

The fines and the court costs are high because it's very expensive to run a court, especially with public defenders.

Why shouldn't the people committing the crimes pay for the courts if they are found guilty? Why should the cost for this be borne by the taxpayers, who live their lives so that they don't wind up in court?

Bodhisattva
6235
Points
Bodhisattva 04/27/14 - 06:13 am
4
0
Wait until you get pulled for

Wait until you get pulled for one of the subjective crimes like, "Driving too fast for conditions" or the new, "Not getting out of the left lane fast enough". Of course there's always the "Crossing the center line" which every driver, no matter how good you are, has done at some time or another, be it to dodge a rock, or a crappily maintained roadside. You'll be singiing a different tune when you get hit with one of those "fair" fines. They have to pay for maintaining those courts for criminals like that, right? If anyone on here can post on here and claim they've never broken any traffic law, and sit on his or her high horse and criticize others and call them criminals, well, let's just say I don't believe a word of it it and would say no one is perfect. I would bet all that I own, that the only people who could honestly say that are people who have never driven a car, or just started driving very, very, very recently.

Gage Creed
17277
Points
Gage Creed 04/27/14 - 09:13 am
1
0
Very seldom agree with Bod,

Very seldom agree with Bod, be he is right on target with this one...

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