Attacking the Bad Headlines Around Misdemeanor Private Probation
You know you’re not having a good year when virtually all the headlines explode in your face and that is the atmosphere around Georgia’s adult misdemeanor probation industry.
It is a foregone conclusion the state will re-engineer this policy sector in which private and public providers supervise about 175,000 adults whose misdemeanor offenses such as traffic tickets landed them in court. Soon we will know what that might mean in terms of 2015 legislation.
Adult misdemeanor probation headlines this year included Georgia General Assembly passage of a potential reform bill that backfired, Governor Nathan Deal’s veto of that same legislation, a highly critical state audit of misdemeanor probation services, a Georgia Supreme Court ruling that shook up misdemeanor probation and lots of opinion about what should be done next.
The Council on Criminal Justice Reform (CCJR) appointed by Governor Deal is among several entities with a large voice in the conversation. Last week the CCJR approved several recommendations. The Council has a three-hour meeting scheduled for Wednesday in Atlanta but the agenda has not been announced. The Council waded into misdemeanor probation at Governor Deal’s request.
Here is a very scaled down summary of some major moving parts:
• HB 837 passed the House and Senate in March and would have exempted private probation providers from the Open Records Act. They would be required to report fees earned to the court, governing authority or council that entered into a contract for their services, but records would not be available to the public. Deal vetoed the bill in April.
• Also in April an official state audit reported on 35 private sector providers that supervised about 80% of misdemeanor probationers statewide in August 2013. (See Project 12-06) The audit found loose policies and procedures, inconsistencies statewide, improper fees being imposed by some providers and much more that was detailed in a 73-page report. Some providers acted outside their authority by gaming the system to force probationers to pay their fees early, extending probation terms without court authorization, improperly accounting for fees paid by probationers and even obtaining arrest warrants.
• Last month the state Supreme Court in the Sentinel Offender Services case (link) upheld the legality for court systems to contract with private probation service providers but it also held that many of their practices were in fact beyond the scope of their authority.
When it met last week in Atlanta the CCJR discussed recommendations to address the state Supreme Court’s November 24 ruling in Sentinel. The company provides misdemeanor private probation services throughout Georgia including Columbia and Richmond counties.
Thirteen plaintiffs who were sentenced to misdemeanor probation in Columbia and Richmond county courts asserted in a lawsuit that the state statute that allows for private offender services is unconstitutional. Further, they asserted that Sentinel unlawfully collected supervision fees and violated their due process rights, even seeking arrest warrants without court authorization.
In their unanimous opinion the Supreme Court justices upheld the statute that allows courts to contract with private probation services. The justices also ruled a misdemeanor probationer’s sentence cannot be extended beyond the original order and in another aspect of Sentinel the Court said electronic monitoring of misdemeanor probationers is permissible. The decision also sent several cases back to lower courts for further resolution.
In brief summary, CCJR recommendations approved last week would require that reports filed by private probation services would become public records. Probationers would have improved access to their files including the financial records for fines they paid. Arrest warrants could not be sought if a probationer missed a scheduled meeting or payment. Indigent probationers could have their fines and fees converted to public service. Courts would have the authority to modify or suspend fees. Finally, probationers would be guaranteed a hearing before any decision to suspend their sentence because of a failure to pay fines, fees or costs.
The Council will have further recommendations on private probation services. The Council’s final report will be submitted to Governor Deal and the Legislature in mid-to-late January. This will be the fourth criminal justice reform annual report. The previous three dealt with adult and juvenile justice and adult re-entry reforms.
(Mike Klein has held executive leadership positions with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcasting and CNN where he was Vice President of News Production. His justice articles are often republished by the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s “Right on Crime” initiative. Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)
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