A trap for probationers

House Bill 837 is a needless gift to the private probation industry

There are a few bills from the 2014 Georgia General Assembly that Gov. Nathan Deal should refuse to sign.

House Bill 837 should be at the top of the list.

This bill, intended to reform Georgia’s thinly regulated private probation industry, does the opposite by giving the for-profit companies more authority and allowing them to shield more records from public scrutiny.

Critics of the legislation – count us among them – have called it a “gift” to the private probation industry, which has come under fire in recent years for abusive and heavy-handed tactics against the misdemeanor probationers some companies oversee.

Many of those complaints involved the local operations of Sentinel Offender Services, a firm at the center of a civil-rights lawsuit brought by low-income probationers who found themselves trapped in a cycle of debt because of their inability to pay fines, fees and surcharges.

Does that sound like extortion and indentured servitude? It does to us.

Worse, some probationers were unaware the company took out arrest warrants for nonpayment of fines and fees, even long after their original probation term expired.

Remember the term “double-secret probation” from the movie Animal House? This is double-secret probation in real life, and on a frightening scale.

The practice is perplexing to say the least, considering the U.S. Supreme Court ruled decades ago that a person cannot be jailed simply for being too poor to pay a fine.

Sadly, the safeguards and accountability provisions that could have prevented these tactics were stripped from H.B. 837 once it moved to the Senate’s noncivil Judiciary Committee, led by Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro.

Stone also happens to be one of two candidates to fill a State Court judgeship in Burke County, which contracts with CSRA Probation Services, a for-profit probation firm. Less than a week before Stone’s committee watered down H.B. 837, CSRA Probation’s owner wrote Stone a letter of recommendation for the judgeship.

Also, three days before the start of the legislative session, Stone received his single-largest campaign contribution from the Georgia Association of Professional Bondsmen. During the session, Stone sponsored a bill that increases the fees companies charge to post bonds, which generally are set by judges.

Stone says he receives contributions from numerous groups, and that there is no quid pro quo.

“I don’t see these as conflicts of interest,” he said with a straight face.

Regardless, his actions enable private corporations to extend probation sentences for nonpayment of fines and fees as well as supervise a variety of fee-based electronic monitoring services.

Exactly how much these companies can collect – and even the number of people they supervise – can become secret if the bill becomes law.

The organization Human Rights Watch estimates Georgia’s private probation industry generated $40 million in revenue last year.

Privatization usually improves efficiency and reduces the taxpayers’ burden, and generally we are in favor of it. But placing judicial powers in the hands of a for-profit corporation with the authority to incarcerate requires strong legislation to ensure that some of society’s most marginalized citizens will not be unfairly exploited.

H.B. 837 is not that legislation, and Gov. Deal should keep his signature off it.

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