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.)
Federal juvenile justice officials have noticed Georgia’s aggressive reforms and must like what they see because Washington is offering to pony up hundreds of thousands of new dollars to help the state implement ongoing juvenile reforms. On Monday the U.S. Justice Department said it could make up to $600,000 available this year, with similar offers in Hawaii and Kentucky.
The announcement said implementation grant funds would be used “to strengthen diversion and community-based options that will reduce their out-of-home population, avert millions of dollars in otherwise anticipated correctional spending, reduce recidivism and protect public safety. OJJDP applauds the efforts of Hawaii, Kentucky and Georgia and is committed to supporting states that undertake comprehensive juvenile justice reform.”
OJJDP is the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice. Georgia has partnered with technical assistance expert organizations during adult and juvenile justice reforms including the Public Safety Performance Project at The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the Vera Institute. Their role generally is data research and analysis. Essentially, these organizations help you understand what the facts are, what they mean and the possible options and paths ahead.
Georgia adult and juvenile justice reforms are modeled on incarcerating serious offenders who pose a public safety risk, creating community-based models for offenders who do not pose a safety risk, and, improving mental health and drug abuse services to individuals who need help.
Georgia wants to stabilize existing incarcerated populations, slow or reverse the rate of growth in those populations and, reduce recidivism which is the re-incarceration rate within three years. Georgia adult offenders have a one-in-three incarceration rate, which is considered a failure.
Governor Nathan Deal started the criminal justice reform process in January 2011 with the appointment of a council to study adult corrections. Lawmakers enacted recommendations from the council in 2012, and they passed juvenile reforms in 2013. The implementation of juvenile reforms began in earnest in January this year, so the process remains in its earliest phase.
The Pew Charitable Trusts wrote this analysis about Georgia juvenile reforms last year.
Private nonprofit organizations and institutions of higher learning are eligible to apply. The grant window is tight. Grant applications must be submitted not later than July 16, 2014. Click here to learn more about the grant in this U.S. Department of Justice announcement.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)
(Published Tuesday, June 17, 2014)
Go bold or go safe? Those are two very different directions. Soon we will see which direction a state digital learning task force chooses when its recommendations are released next month. The task force created last year by Governor Nathan Deal in was told in specific executive order language that technology and digital learning are the future. What does that mean?
Far-reaching, shoot-the-moon strategies that shove aside traditional obstacles could become transformational – that is, they would forever change the landscape. Less aggressive but politically safe thinking would become largely transitional – that is, tweaks around the edges.
Georgia has recent experience with both transformational and transitional.
Three years ago the state empaneled a special council to recommend comprehensive tax and revenue policy reform. Ideas from that high profile special council were so transformational, landscape changing and politically charged that the council’s excellent work was almost immediately laid to waste. The report became a victim of its own aggressive recommendations.
Three years later, Georgia has fallen behind other southern states. Soon, Georgia will have the highest maximum personal income tax rate among all southern states, something that Texas, North Carolina, Florida and others understand as they refine economic game plans. Georgia did eliminate the energy tax on manufacturing inputs – you could easily debate that this was only a transitional idea — but the state has as yet failed to address larger tax policy questions.
Contrast the transitional approach to tax reform with the transformational approach to criminal justice reform. With almost his first breath in office, Governor Deal implemented a multiple-year strategy to address adult and juvenile justice reform. Georgia is now regarded as being among the small number of states that have the best ideas and infrastructure to monitor reforms. Georgia is absolutely a transformational leader within the justice reform conversation.
Learning policy today is stuck between transition and transformation. We know the brick-and-mortar model where everyone learns everything inside a classroom is on the way out, but we are not quite so far down the road that everyone can learn everything through online learning. And, there are great inequities across the state – and the nation – due to resource availability. There are also many different kinds of learners. One-size-fits all will never be the best model.
When the Digital Learning Task Force met last week in Fayetteville, one member said her company would be out of business today if it was still trying to succeed with a 1985 business model. Georgia schools are funded by something known as the Quality Basic Education Act – which was enacted in 1985. Last week Deal said he would like to overhaul QBE if he is re-elected in November 2014. At that, it could be years before anyone sees a new formula.
Another task force member said Georgia has plenty of virtual learning resources – and plenty of traditional learning resources, that is, classrooms – but co-mingling resources has not taken place. Disincentives, particularly how education is funded, you know, on that 1985 QBE model, provide plenty of obstacles to the successful blending of virtual and traditional learning. Not only was there no online learning in 1985, there was no online anything in 1985!
Traditionally, school systems and states needed to create what they taught. Now teaching and learning resources are available from across the globe, from thousands of phenomenal sources, often just one click away. Sometimes for free. School systems and states no longer need to spend money writing courses. Instead, they need to invest their tax dollars toward acquisition of outstanding content and make certain that infrastructure exists to reach learners everywhere.
This year the 14-member Digital Learning Task Force work groups focused on infrastructure requirements, blended and competency-based learning, and digital content and course resources. The report due next month could serve as a placeholder, or a playmaker.
Boldly, the task force could state K-12 public education in Georgia will become entirely digital within a certain timeframe – for example, by the year 2025 – unless there is no digital course available for learners, which is highly unlikely because digital content creation is moving faster than the ability or interest of school systems to implement new online learning options.
Boldly, the task force could start the funding formula review by recommending state and local tax dollars should follow students to digital learning environments. School systems absolutely should receive tax dollars for enrolled students, but student education should be funded where the students are – systems should not receive funds for students who are not there.
Some folks believe good things are happening in Georgia public education but nobody knows. That’s also a problem. Task forces are not created to change perceptions but this one should choose to Go Bold because going safe actually means going backward.
Georgia education can no longer afford to be transitional. It must become transformational.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Governor Nathan Deal has raised the ante on civil asset forfeiture reform in Georgia by formally asking the new Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform to bring forward its own recommendation – and he means before the General Assembly returns in January.
Ten new members and five holdovers from last year’s Council were told about civil asset forfeiture reform during their initial meeting Thursday afternoon at the State Capitol. Civil asset forfeiture reform was perhaps the most contentious issue in the 2013 General Assembly.
House Bill 1 would have limited the power sheriffs and district attorneys have to seize the assets of people who have been convicted of no crime, convert those assets to cash, and then use the cash essentially however they want to supplement their public budgets.
The legislation was angrily opposed by sheriffs in committee hearings and by district attorneys in more civil dialogue. HB 1 passed committee but never received a House floor vote as sheriffs packed the Capitol in visible – some might say intimidating — opposition to the bill. Technically, HB 1 remains alive and could be called to a floor vote or a new bill could be drafted.
The momentum to again reconsider civil asset forfeiture law began to swing in spring and early summer. Several news media reports asked questions about how some public officials seized personal property and spent civil asset forfeiture funds. Governor Deal suggested another look. House Speaker David Ralston created a study committee. Now the Governor has formally asked the Council on Criminal Justice Reform to weigh in before January.
“We by no means intend to be running counter to the Speaker’s work group,” said Governor’s Office Deputy Executive Counsel Thomas Worthy. “Probably it’s more perfect to say we will be running parallel to that.” Worthy and Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs are co-chairs of the Criminal Justice Reform Council, as they were in 2012. Boggs noted, “There are different schools of thought on that. There are some politics involved and we’ll just deal with it.”
The Criminal Justice Reform Council membership has been significantly rebuilt since last year which reflects its new focus. Gone are prosecutors and folks with expertise on who should be behind bars and how they should be managed inside. The Council is smaller – down from 21 to 15 members — all appointed by Governor Deal. New members were appointed because of their expertise in employment, housing and community-based programs.
Members include executives from Home Depot and Georgia Power, a pastor with experience in community programs and the executive director of a non-profit housing support association. Several members are from outside the Atlanta metropolitan region. The Governor’s Office for Children and Families executive director was appointed. A new Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Re-Entry was established to coordinate goals and monitor accountability.
The 2011 Council focus on adult reforms emphasized incarceration of violent or repeat serious offenders, and the expansion of accountability courts and treatment for non-violent offenders who would benefit more from mental health or drug counseling than incarceration.
The 2012 Council recommended ending lock-up detention for juvenile status offenders, such as school truants, whose actions would not be crimes if they were adults. The Council pushed for and the Legislature adopted recommendations to expand community-based programs.
Last month the Deal administration announced $4.6 million in state grants for two dozen juvenile court jurisdictions to start or expand community treatment programs. Other juvenile court applications are pending. Total grant dollars available this fiscal year is about $6 million.
“We’ve addressed what we do when (adults or juveniles) are in the system,” Judge Boggs said. “We’re trying to address what we do before they get into the system with the juvenile courts. Think of this as a three-legged stool. Now what are we going to do when they get out?”
Boggs, Worthy, Judge Steve Teske, Judge Jason Deal and Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry are holdover members from the 2012 Council. Here is a link to the Governor’s Office executive order that announced Council membership.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)
Georgia’s track record as a low-tax, pro-business, pro-growth state is absolute. However, the state has been unable to enact an important threshold – elimination or at least a sizable reduction in the 6 percent maximum personal income tax rate – and that prevents Georgia from being considered at the top of states that have low-tax, pro-growth fiscal policies.
Today the American Legislative Council released its sixth annual “Rich States, Poor States” economic competitiveness index report that evaluates states on 15 fiscal policy sectors that include tax rates, state regulations, right-to-work laws and size of the public workforce as a percentage of statewide population. The ALEC formula rewards low-taxing, low-spending states, of which Georgia is one.
Georgia does well … ranked as the eighth best state nationally and up two spots from one year ago. But therein is part of the challenge. Georgia ranked eighth in the first ALEC report five years ago, then slipped several spots and only now has it reclaimed the eighth spot ranking.
To see that idea from another angle, ALEC does not consider Georgia has done enough with tax and regulation policies in five years to greatly improve its ranked position vs. other states.
“Georgia has become one of the most Republican states in the country and it’s also become a very fiscally conservative state over the last 10 and 20 years,” said co-author Stephen Moore, during an ALEC conference call this week. “If there’s a state that could eliminate its income tax it would be Georgia. The table is set for that. We’ve been pushing it for a long time.”
The 2010 Georgia Special Council on Tax Reform recommended elimination of most personal income tax deductions and adoption of the lowest possible revenue neutral income tax rate with 4 percent as the original target. The Legislature has never come closer than almost voting on a bill that would have reduced the maximum personal income tax rate to 4.5 percent. There was no personal income tax reform legislation during this year’s General Assembly.
Nine states do not collect personal income tax. “I’ve always thought Georgia should be the next domino to fall especially because, who are your neighbors?” said Moore, who is a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board. “You’ve got Florida and Tennessee, both which have no income tax. You’re what we call an income tax sandwich. You’re sandwiched between two states that don’t have (state personal income tax) so that puts you at a competitive disadvantage.”
Moore, ALEC’s Jonathan Williams and economist Arthur Laffer are the co-authors. “Georgia can do some other things that would not necessarily cost from a revenue perspective,” said Williams, who is director of ALEC’s Center for State Fiscal Reform. He cited additional pension plan reform, requiring a super majority legislative vote for tax increases, and mandatory government spending limits, along with reduced state liability and workmen’s compensation costs.
The 2013 edition of ”Rich States, Poor States” also highlights funding and obligation problems posed by public sector pension plans, which the non-partisan State Budget Solutions says are underfunded by some $4.6 trillion. Williams said the federal government recently filed suit against Illinois “for basically fraudulent pension accounting. We find that issue in a lot of states.”
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Click here to read “Rich States, Poor States.” Click here to watch Stephen Moore speak to the Policy Foundation 2013 annual dinner on the Foundation YouTube channel.)
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