A recent audit of the state’s private probation industry found much to criticize while ignoring the many benefits the industry provides. Despite best efforts to be thorough, the limited number of cases studied may not provide an accurate picture of the industry or the scope of its services.
Georgia’s private probation industry provides a valuable and cost-effective service that enhances public safety. Nearly three-dozen service providers supervise approximately a quarter-million probationers while working with more than 600 municipal, state, probate and superior courts. Together, our companies guided probationers in completing more than 2 million hours of community service in 2013 and ensured thousands of victims received restitution – all while saving state taxpayers millions of dollars.
As the largest private provider of probation services in Georgia, Sentinel Offender Services is leading the way in supporting reforms. We believe in having a uniform set of standards for probation providers throughout the state. Unfortunately, critics fail to recognize the industry has already taken several steps to implement changes – something the audit could not measure because of the time frame in which it was done.
OFTEN, INDIVIDUALS with no experience in an industry that requires interaction with offender populations don’t understand the complexity of the issues. For example, while critics claim warrants are used to threaten probationers, the fact is a percentage of offenders will not comply with their sentences. Probation officers are required to inform offenders of the potential consequences of noncompliance – usually incarceration – but calling that a threat is a mischaracterization.
While the industry remains a highly effective component of Georgia’s justice system, we recognize the system is not perfect, and there always is room for improvement. Sentinel Offender Services supports the following industry best practices, which we believe other service providers can embrace to continue making our industry better:
• a signed contract with every court for which a company provides services, clearly setting fees, performance standards and guidelines for probationers and service providers;
• allowing courts to establish criteria for determining if an offender is indigent, and which offenders meet that definition (we also support a transparent process for courts to select probation providers);
• a multi-tiered fee scale with lower monthly fees for offenders ordered only to pay fines;
• terminating cases upon full payment of court-imposed financial obligations, and a policy that prevents issuing warrants related only to collection of fees;
• capping fees so the maximum supervision fee does not exceed the total of other court-ordered financial obligations;
• assessing fees only in 30-day increments, and never assessing a fee in any month that supervision services are not provided;
• increased reporting to courts about the status of all probationers; more court days specifically to address probation issues; and increased transparency in the court-provider-probationer relationship.
Our experience shows that quality case management from experienced officers keeps offenders accountable, and leads to successful completion of probation sentences. Despite our success, we recognize that change is necessary, and the best practices above underlie our commitment.
ULTIMATELY, EVERY private probation provider in Georgia wants the system to be the best it can. Many have been working toward common-sense reforms that will ensure greater uniformity across jurisdictions. We recognize that by continuing to enhance transparency and accountability, private probation providers will best be able to benefit offenders, courts and the communities we serve.
(The writer is chief business development officer at Sentinel Offender Services in Atlanta.)