Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed legislation last week that would have allowed private probation companies to keep secret from the public details such as how many people they supervise and how much they collect in fines. Supporters of the bill said it would help private probation companies avoid frivolous litigation. Opponents warned it amounted to a gift to help shield the lucrative firms from more scrutiny. We hear from both sides today.
Commenting is open.
By Mark Contestabile
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 250,000 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 due to 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 that a percentage of offenders will not comply with their sentences. Probation officers are required to inform offenders of the potential consequences of non-compliance — 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 is always room for improvement. Sentinel 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, as well as 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 change is necessary. 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.
Mark Contestabile is chief business development officer at Sentinel Offender Services, based in Atlanta.
By Stacey Abrams
In courts around Georgia, people who are charged with misdemeanors and cannot pay their fines that day in court are placed on probation, most under the supervision of for-profit companies until they pay their fines. On probation, they must pay these companies substantial monthly “supervision fees” that may double the amount a person of means would pay for the same offense.
Private companies now supervise about 80 percent of all people on probation for misdemeanors in Georgia. Under the leadership of the private probation industry, Georgia has the highest rate of people on probation of any state in the country. Probation is preferable to debtor’s prisons, but the modern alternative is not too far removed.
Gov. Nathan Deal is to be commended for vetoing House Bill 837. This bill, passed with the support of the powerful private probation lobby, would have expanded the reach of private probation even further while shielding the industry from public scrutiny.
Had it become law, the bill would have permitted private companies to require electronic monitoring for misdemeanor and traffic offenses such as driving without a license, failure to stop at a stop sign, or possession of a small amount of marijuana.
Private companies prefer electronic monitoring because it generates huge profits. Companies routinely charge over $2,000 per year for such monitoring in misdemeanor cases. This is in addition to criminal fines, probation fees and surcharges. People with limited incomes cannot afford such costs and often face probation revocation and jail when they cannot pay.
HB 837 would have allowed private probation companies to charge usury fees and then to get probationers’ sentences “tolled,” or extended, if they had not finished paying probation fees.
As the governor correctly recognized, the private probation bill also had significant transparency problems. Rather than place probation companies in the sunlight, HB 837 would have intentionally blocked members of the public and the media from being able to find out how much money the companies are charging citizens. It also exempted other information from public disclosure, such as the number of offenders under supervision and the number of warrants issued.
The purpose of this secrecy was puzzling, as it was in addition to current law, which already makes confidential “[a]ll reports, files, records, and papers of whatever kind relative to the supervision of probationers by a private corporation… .”
The timing of these provisions also bear scrutiny. After the House adopted several amendments that would have provided citizens with protection from high fees, the Georgia Senate added the disturbing transparency language. The provisions clearly obscured the fact that private probation companies often keep indigent people on probation by paying themselves first, before applying probationers’ payments toward their criminal fines.
In a recent example, Augusta resident Marietta Conner owed $140 on a traffic ticket for failure to yield to a pedestrian in the cross walk. When she made a $20 payment, Sentinel Offender Services Inc. took $10 for itself, and applied only $1 to her fine. When Ms. Conner paid $60, Sentinel took $30, and applied only $21 to the fine. Ms. Conner, whose sole income is her Social Security check, was caught in a cycle in which she could not pay off her fine before the next month’s fee was added. Then the company threatened her with jail for nonpayment.
The misdemeanor probation system in Georgia is broken. It prioritizes money collection over public safety and rehabilitation. Last month, the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts released a blistering critique of misdemeanor probation and offered suggestions for how to improve it.
We would be wise to implement the department’s recommendations going forward.
Stacey Abrams is Georgia House Minority leader.