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Attacking the Bad Headlines Around Misdemeanor Private Probation

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

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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December 16, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mental Health is a Huge Issue” in Georgia Justice Strategies

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Discussion about mental health and other substance abuse treatment alternatives was front and center Wednesday when criminal justice system officials addressed House and Senate joint appropriations lawmakers at the State Capitol.  “Mental health is a huge issue in all the things we do,” Judge Robin W. Shearer said on behalf of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges.

Georgia is in the early stages of significant adult and juvenile justice system reforms that focus on how to ensure incarceration for the most serious offenders, and how to provide community treatment options for offenders who do not benefit from or even require incarceration.

Last year the General Assembly passed reforms to move the adult corrections system toward those goals.   This year legislators are expected to approve sweeping reforms to juvenile criminal law and the civil code.  Governor Nathan Deal has made reforms a personal priority and his budget devotes millions of dollars to these goals.

The importance of mental health considerations was evident early in Wednesday’s hearing.

Adult corrections commissioner Brian Owens said the state has opened alternative treatment centers in seven rural judicial circuits and this year plans to open four-to-seven more.  Two facilities were opened to treat “dually diagnosed offenders”; Owens described them as persons with mental illness who attempt to medicate themselves with legal prescriptions or illegal drugs.  The state has also opened a new residential substance abuse treatment center for males.

These options give the state capability to treat about 5,000 non-violent offenders per year in community settings rather than prisons.  “Georgia, I believe, is really at the forefront of dealing with criminal addiction (and) criminal mental health issues,” Owens said, “applying mental health resources in the community before offenders get too far down the road and we suffer a tragedy.”

2013 State of the State Address(Photo Courtesy Alana Joyner, Office of the Governor)

2013 State of the State Address
(Photo Courtesy Alana Joyner, Office of the Governor)

Governor Deal’s Fiscal 2014 budget contains $11.6 million for the continued expansion of drug and mental health accountability courts for non-violent offenders who need community-based treatment more than they need incarceration; this builds on $10 million that Deal inserted for the same purpose into the Fiscal 2013 budget.   Next year’s proposed budget also contains a $5 million line item to create incentives to start community-based juvenile treatment options.

That is good news for juvenile judges.  “I welcome prevention dollars,” said Judge Shearer, who is president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been a juvenile court judge since 1993.  Shearer said, “The pendulum of whether we emphasize prevention or penalties kind of swings back and forth.  A prevention dollar is a dollar well spent.”  Shearer noted, “We are seeing children from birth until they become adults.”

By the numbers, the state adult corrections system has some 57,500 inmates and 162,600 on felony probation.  The budget is about $1.1 billion per year to support adult corrections.  The annual per bed cost for an adult inmate is about $18,000, but that cost increases for older inmates who require more advanced health care.

This week the juvenile justice system, a separate entity, had 1,741 in secure confinement and 11,941 on community supervision.  The juvenile justice department budget is $300 million. DJJ makes contact with about 52,000 juveniles per calendar year.  The annual per bed cost for a committed juvenile is above $90,000, higher than adult incarceration cost for many reasons including, DJJ operates its own school system.

Those financial numbers do not tell a complete story.  State pardons and paroles has a budget near $53 million.  Juvenile system officials, including the juvenile courts, interact with many other state agencies, making it hard to determine exactly what the state directly spends on juveniles and their justice issues.  The state easily spends $1.4 billion annually on adult and juvenile justice without factoring in even one cent of what it costs to run state and local courts.

Proposals from the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform — for adults and juveniles — focus on how to protect the public, reduce public expense and reduce recidivism, which is the percentage of juveniles who are re-adjudicated or adults convicted of a criminal offense within three years of their release.  More than 50 percent of juveniles re-enter the justice system within three years and more than 30 percent of adults re-offend.

Owens said the number of state inmates being held in county jails is significantly down.  Twelve months ago county jails held 900 males waiting for placement in a probation detention center.  Today there are no males and about 200 females.  That is important to local governments because the state does not reimburse counties for inmates who are waiting for probation detention center placement. “Our counties will save money,” Owens said.

Juvenile justice commissioner Avery Niles told legislators, “We have become an agency that deals with both youths and adults in a juvenile setting.”  Niles was DJJ board chairman until two months ago when Governor Deal moved him to the commissioner’s office.  Niles said that about half of juveniles who enter the corrections system have drug addictions.  He described the overall population as “older, more aggressive and staying longer.”  Ninety percent of youths in DJJ custody are now designated felons.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

(This article was republished by Right on Crime, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.)

Right on Crime

January 24, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ten Years Later Georgia Still Seeking Drug Abuse Options

Mike Klein

There are many different kinds of snakes and though I like none of them, I am willing to concede that some can attack and kill you while others are mostly just a nuisance.  The part that I am not quite so good at is figuring out which snakes to fear and which snakes to just closely monitor.

A lot of folks in Georgia are trying to figure out which drug abusers to fear and which to closely monitor.  It is an inexact science that no doubt will produce examples of success and failure.

Reform ideas include a strategically different approach that emphasizes less costly treatment programs over more costly incarceration for drug abusers who otherwise have clean records and who are not considered a public safety threat.  The shift in strategy would treat some drug abuse as an illness rather than as a crime.

This model has been adopted or is under consideration in many states like Georgia that also can no longer afford to build and maintain new prisons.  Adult inmates with drug abuse or mental illness histories – and often both – have overburdened state corrections.

The challenge is neither easy nor new.  A December 2002 sentencing commission report submitted to outgoing Gov. Roy Barnes stated, “Use of Georgia’s prisons must be more heavily concentrated on the criminals who pose the greatest danger to our communities, and credible alternatives must be created for drug offenders and others who do not need a hard time in prison.”

In language not much different from what we hear today, the commission described the need “to break the seemingly endless cycle of crime and addiction for thousands of offenders, ease the strain on Georgia’s courts, jails and prisons and make our communities safer.”  It further said, “After more than 15 years fighting the current war on drugs, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys are frustrated and ready for a change.”

The purpose of the commission was to better standardize how judges sentence offenders.  Ten years ago the state was worried it might exceed 50,000 prison inmates.  Today it has about 56,000 inmates with forecasts the state prison population could reach 60,000 within four years. The adult prison system population increases by about 1,000 inmates per year

There is widespread agreement that illegal drugs – and increasingly, abused legal prescription drugs — are linked to virtually all Georgia crime.  That was one finding last year by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.  It is reflected in the 75-page reform bill now before the General Assembly, and it was a recurring theme during eight hours of committee hearings.  But there are legitimately different points of view about drug treatment vs. incarceration.

That was evident during an exchange between state Rep. Jay Neal and Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head.  Neal is a member of the House – Senate committee that is drafting criminal justice reform legislation. Neal strongly supports alternative treatment options and he has been very outspoken, often recalling his experiences as a pastor helping congregants.

“If it’s somebody that’s not a threat to society and the crime is addiction driven crime, we need to be doing everything we can to not put them in prison so they can get a graduate degree in crime so they come out and be a threat to society,” Neal said.

Cobb district attorney Head replied, “I’ve got to respectfully disagree.  Many of the murders we have are committed by people who are drug addicts.  The aggravated assaults, the burglaries in the home, those are people that I am afraid of.  If we keep letting people who are addicted to drugs not have to face any serious consequences for that addiction they will, in my humble opinion, they will ultimately hurt somebody.”

“That’s where the risk / needs assessment comes in because we can begin to see when they start trending toward true criminal behavior to be afraid of.  We can typically see that,” Neal said.  Head replied, “I haven’t seen the assessment that will give me that information yet.”

Many drug treatment vs. incarceration principles were developed in Texas where Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation says risk /needs assessment tools have become increasingly accurate for evaluation of low, medium and high risk offenders.

“Of course, just as in driving a car or flying a plane, a zero-based risky society is not realistic,” said Levin, who is a former Texas Supreme Court staff attorney, “but corrections personnel have a far better ability now to match the right offender with the right program or intervention than just a few decades ago.”

Georgia legislators have a very short calendar to decide how much criminal justice reform they are comfortable with this year.  There are three or maybe four weeks left in the current session.  The bill is big; it contains a lot more than deciding how to balance drug incarceration or treatment options.  But ultimately, that is the biggest piece and it is the one that must be decided first.

(Click here to read a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article about Georgia criminal justice reform.)

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

March 12, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Right on Crime: Conservative Values to Create Justice Solutions

Mike Klein

Conservatives who want to change criminal justice public policy have another new resource at their disposal. Right on Crime will be unveiled by the Texas Public Policy Foundation during a Wednesday news conference and panel discussion at Americans for Tax Reform headquarters in Washington DC.

Right on Crime is a disciplined commitment to bring conservative values to justice solutions much as conservatives focused earlier on education.  It leaves the starting gate armed with a robust website supplemented by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages.  Early support is coming from conservative icons Newt Gingrich, Edwin Meese and many others.

Project founder Marc Levin is Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  Levin is a frequent national speaker and just last month he joined the Georgia Public Policy Foundation legislative briefing criminal justice panel.  When we spoke Tuesday afternoon I asked Levin what concerns him most about criminal justice public policy.

“The thing that keeps standing out to me is the broader question of accountability and results,” Levin said.  “It seems to me that with criminal justice systems, at every stage funding expands based on the number of inmates and people on probation.  We know how many people are in the system, but what is the recidivism rate?”

Levin pointed to the obvious but disturbing statistic that criminal justice system state and local spending grows when inmate rehabilitation fails.  More prisoners result in more spending.  More people return to prison when they have not been rehabilitated, which requires more spending.

“By in large, front line people are trying to do their best but I think we have a system in place that doesn’t really reward results,” Levin said. “If you look at education, conservatives pushed merit pay and accountability but I see criminal justice being way behind education.  I really think there is a great need for conservatives to bring the same scrutiny to criminal justice.”

Right on Crime’s primary website and other social media products are designed to influence how legislators think about justice policy.  Conservatives won new majorities in 19 statehouses and more than 600 new conservative state legislators will take office next year.  The opportunity to address effective justice policy from a conservative viewpoint might never have been better.

The Right on Crime new website contains writings by free market think tank journalists and analysts.  Levin said the project will emphasize juvenile justice and victim issues.  There are 22 state profiles, including one for Georgia.  The site contains subsections on principles to reduce crime, reduce costs, reform offenders, make restitution to victims and protect communities.  The Georgia Public Policy Foundation endorsed Right on Crime’s statement of principles.

Several videos are posted on the organization’s new YouTube channel.  Facebook is finding friends and reporting news; the first item: Texas must cut some $300 million from corrections because of budget shortfalls.  Twitter is the home for justice news updates from across the country.  The primary website also supports an RSS feed.

Levin will be joined in Washington by Texas Public Policy Foundation president Brooke Rollins, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, Pat Nolan of Justice Fellowship and David Keene of the American Conservative Union.  Folks who want to know more can visit RightonCrime.com to register for an electronic newsletter.

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

December 14, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Can Georgia Still Afford “Lock Them Up and Throw Away the Key”?

Georgia has a significant corrections system challenge and there’s no getting around that fact.  Nationally one in every 100 adults is behind state prison or local jail bars but the number is one in every 70 Georgia adults.  Nationally one in every 31 adults is in prison or jail, on probation or on parole but the comparable number is one in every 13 Georgia adults, worst in the nation.

“It’s really something else that this state is number one, if you will, when it comes to the extent of correctional control of its citizens,” said  Adam Gelb, current director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Center on the States and formerly, a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee staff member.

Gelb moderated “Getting Criminal Justice Right: Less Crime for Less Money” at the inaugural Georgia Public Policy Foundation legislative conference.  Gelb was joined by Texas legislator Jerry Madden and Texas Public Policy Foundation analyst Marc Levin.  Madden is considered one of the nation’s top corrections systems innovators and Levin is director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas foundation.

Adam Gelb

Gelb said 25 years ago Georgia spent about $150 million per year on state corrections.  Today the state corrections budget is about $1.1 billion.  But Georgia is not alone.  State corrections budgets exploded during recent years and now are substantial line items in state governments.

“Most people would say that would all be worth it if we got a really strong public safety return,” Gelb said, “and there’s no question that here in Georgia and across the country the expansion of incarceration has helped reduced the crime rate, no question at all.”

Gelb was executive director of the Georgia Governor’s Commission on Certainty in Sentencing between 2001 and 2003.  “When you lock up career offenders, when you lock up violent people that’s who you have prisons for and it pays off,” Gelb said.  “The issue is, have we locked up so many people, has the net been cast so wide that we’re past the point of diminishing returns?  The answer seems to be yes.”

This year Governing Magazine honored Madden and fellow Texas legislator John Whitmire as 2010 Public Officials of the Year for their efforts to reform the Texas corrections system.  The Lone Star state’s landmark 2007 reforms de-emphasized building new prisons.  They had so many new ideas that Madden is almost continuously on-the-road consulting with other states.

Jerry Madden

Madden and Whitmire designed a model that added 4,000 beds for substance abuse treatment, expanded specialty courts, expanded probation services, built short-term jails, and devoted new funding to mental health care and halfway release residences.  They received assistance from Levin at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and other outside corrections analysts.

Their new model required a $241 million Texas state government investment.  Their reforms replaced an option to spend $2 billion on new prison construction.  Last year the state’s prison population declined and Texas will not need new prison beds until at least the year 2014.

Levin said the current Texas crime rate is the lowest since 1973, even allowing for events at the contentious U.S.-Mexico border.  Gelb said Georgia’s prison population, about 55,000 adults, is up 30% over ten years and statewide crime is down about 20%.  He noted Mississippi and South Carolina passed recent corrections system reforms.  And, Gelb said the Pew Center will soon begin to work on reforms with Alabama and Louisiana.

Levin and Madden define corrections system reform, in part, as breaking the cycle of adult offenders who return to the corrections system.  “The smartest tool you have is a good risk assessment tool,” Madden said.  He urged states to determine whether offenders are “really bad people or were they people who made really dumb decisions?”

“As conservatives we emphasize limited government and we recognize public safety is, I think, one of those few core roles of government,” Levin said.  “It’s important to hold criminal justice agencies accountable for their results reducing recidivism and make sure that our system is truly effective.  We talk about merit pay, we talk about teach quality (and) accountability in education.  We ought to be just as demanding when it comes to corrections.”

Watch the panel on the Public Policy Foundation YouTube channel: http://tinyurl.com/3x625v4

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

 

December 9, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Can Georgia Learn from Texas Prison System Reforms?

This article was written for and published by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Each day across Georgia, the state Department of Corrections feeds a population that is nearly equal to the number of residents living in Marietta.  It takes thousands of pounds of food to feed nearly 60,000 adult prisoners.  Paying for the state’s corrections system with its 31 state prisons costs taxpayers $1 billion per year, including the cost to manage 150,000 parolees.

This month the PEW Center on the States reported the first year-to-year drop in state prison population since 1972.   The percentage rate began to decline in 2007, but real numbers did not decline until last year.  Unfortunately, not in Georgia which posted the sixth largest percentage increase in the nation, a 1.6% growth rate, and in real numbers, the Georgia prison population grew by 843 adult felons. Continue reading

April 21, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment