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.)
Georgia Public Broadcasting was named in Governor Nathan Deal’s 2013 proposed budget as one of 35 programs that will participate in zero-based budget reviews. GPB is the only state authority whose name shows up in the zero-based budget review category. During his Tuesday evening State of the State address the Governor said 10 percent of all state programs would move to zero-based budgets.
Popularly known as GPB-TV and GPB Radio, the official name is Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission. The state public broadcaster is attached to the University System Board of Regents for budget purposes. Governor Deal’s 2013 proposed budget would give GPB a very slight budget trim to $12.3 million in state dollars, less than the two percent average reduction at other agencies, but still millions of dollars below the agency’s high water mark during pre-recession year budgets.
Governor Deal’s summary of zero based budget reviews is divided into five categories that were originally conceived under the now defunct Commission for a New Georgia: Educated Georgia, Healthy Georgia, Safe Georgia, Best Managed State and Growing Georgia.
The Governor’s proposed budget was published Wednesday morning. It states, “The purpose of the Zero Based Budgeting review is to assess a program against its statutory responsibilities, purpose, cost to provide services, and outcomes achieved. Ten percent of programs are examined each year, including a thorough evaluation of the activities and services provided by the program, the performance measures demonstrating program outcomes and effectiveness, and program spending trends. The total recommended reduction to the programs shown above is $8,890,376.”
Educated Georgia programs that identified for zero-based budget reviews include child care services at the Department of Early Care and Learning, technology and career education at the Department of Education, the central office at the Board of Regents and departmental administration at the Technical College System.
Healthy Georgia programs include adult forensic services at Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, health care access and improvement at Community Health; adoption services and elder community living services at Human Services; the state trauma care network commission at Public Health and the state Veterans Memorial Cemetery at Veterans Services.
Safe Georgia programs include departmental administration and probation supervision at Corrections; youth education services at Defense; the criminal justice information system at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation; the youth detention centers secure commitment program at Juvenile Justice; and, the public safety training centers program at Public Safety.
Many programs were identified in the Best Managed State category, including state purchasing at the Department of Administrative Services. Three Governor’s Office programs were also named: the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, the Office of Student Achievement and the Office of Consumer Protection. Four programs were selected at the State Personnel Administration including system administration and workforce development and alignment.
Also in the Best Managed State category, the Department of Labor business enterprise program will undergo a zero-based budget review as will the archives program at the Secretary of State’s office
Growing Georgia programs include marketing and promotion at Agriculture, tourism at Economic Development and airport aid at Transportation.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Georgia, Alabama and Florida are in a water war. Everyone who waters the lawn knows that. But how often do folks consider the impact of a vast river basin that extends for 500 miles, touches millions of lives, enriches fields that grow our food and sustains industries that keep us employed. How often have you considered, just exactly who owns that water, anyhow?
Atlanta-based documentary filmmakers Rhett Turner and Jonathan Wickham provide exceptional insight into that question in “Chattahoochee: From Water War to Water Vision.” It is a superbly crafted documentary. Here in one hour is the great unsettled water war distilled into pictures and stories that everyone can actually understand. Their do-not-miss documentary will broadcast twice this weekend on Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Turner and Wickham made an early strategic decision that is the primary reason the program works. They decided this would not be a story about politicians, their attorneys and their pleadings in federal court. I talked with Turner and Wickham this week when GPB hosted an audience in Midtown.
“If we follow day-to-day stuff, newspapers, following reporters and government officials, that’s a circle that doesn’t go anywhere,” said Turner, who photographed 65 hours of original interviews and footage for “Chattahoochee.” “Talk to the people, find out what they have to say, the ones who are on the ground, using the water, the farmer, the ones in the oyster beds. Get to know them because if we don’t know them, we don’t know how important the watershed is.”
Turner and Wickham began production three years ago during the historic drought. Then it began to rain. “So the drought was over but we still had a story,” Turner said. “We still had the court decision coming so we’re going ahead anyway. We made discoveries all along the way that were completely different than what we thought the original idea would be.” They found much of big business was not real excited about their project but Kodak in Columbus opened its doors and a good central Georgia story was told. Another vignette shows the Atlanta region being completely overwhelmed by 2009 fall floods.
“When we set out to make a documentary about water, it was like making a documentary about grass growing. It was like, how the hell are we going to make this interesting?” Wickham said. “How are we going to develop stories? It’s an important subject. We knew that. But how are you going to find these little stories that can carry some important facts but at the same time will engage an 18-year-old?”
The Tri-State Water War legal part goes like this: Last summer a U.S. District Court judge in Minnesota ruled Georgia, Alabama and Florida must agree on river withdrawals before mid-2012 or the question will be kicked upstairs to Congress, which nobody thinks is a good idea. Governors have been arguing about the question for years and next year there will be three new governors.
The essential question is whether the ever expanding Atlanta metropolitan region will continue to use Lake Lanier as its primary water source. Georgia says YES; Alabama and Florida say NO, even though Lanier has provided water to Atlanta’s metro population for many decades. Water removed from the Chattahoochee for north Georgia needs means there is less for everyone else downstream.
Strip away all the legal stuff and you find real people, folks north and south whose lives could change forever based on how the water decision is finally made. They harvest oysters in Florida’s bays, grow crops in southern Georgia and work in plants in Columbus. They manage the extremely complicated Atlanta water system, live and work along Lake Lanier, study the biology of the Flint River and work to keep thousands of miles of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers free of waste and just plain bad stuff.
These people tell their stories in “Chattahoochee” and that is what makes this documentary special.
The film passed an important milestone when Wickham showed it to his 18-year-old daughter last weekend. “She was like, ‘Wow, people my age don’t know any of this stuff and you actually made it so people can watch it.’ That’s the overall thing. We actually pulled off a story that is not boring.”
10:00pm Friday, October 8
4:00pm Sunday, October 10
7:00pm Monday, October 18, GPB Knowledge Channel
“Chattahoochee” was edited by Brandon Arnold and Greg Pope.
Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
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