Georgia Bill Gives Private Companies Expansive Power Over Probation Sentences

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In the past few years, private firms in Georgia that profit from holding poor residents criminally responsible for failure to pay fines have faced rebuke after rebuke in court rulings and lawsuits. In one, Sentinel Offender Services held open an arrest warrant that had expired two years earlier. In another, a court found that the same notorious firm had illegally extended the probation sentences of potentially thousands of Georgians. And even when they’re not found in violation of the law, they are testing its limits by profiting on the backs of individuals too poor to pay probation fines for offenses as minor as traffic violations.

To rein in the industry, critics have called for increased oversight. But instead, the Georgia legislature passed a bill last week to give private probation firms even more power, and to make most information surrounding the firms a state secret.

“This bill is a gift to the private probation firms,” said Southern Center for Human Rights attorney Sarah Geraghty.

Private probation firms take on the role of supervising probation sentences for misdemeanor cases in some counties. But probation terms that often begin because an individual doesn’t have the means to pay a fine in the first place become the source for a cycle of criminal debt, as companies impose monthly “supervision” fees, even where the only supervision mandated by the court is collection of a fee, as well as hefty charges for electronic monitoring and drug tests. Unlike debt collection agencies, these firms use the threat of arrests, jail time, and electronic monitoring to extract these funds from low-level offenders.

In Georgia, traffic offenses are considered criminal. So even individuals charged with running a stop sign have landed in jail for allegedly not paying fees, even over claims that they already paid. In one Georgia incident documented in a recent Human Rights Watch report, a man who stole a $2 can of beer ended up in jail for failure to pay a $200 fine that ballooned into more than $1,000 under the supervision of a private probation firm. And Georgia’s private probation companies charge twice as much per month to supervise individuals with misdemeanor convictions ($39 to $44) as the state charges to supervise individuals for felonies ($23), according to the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The bill passed by both houses this week is a direct response to a court ruling last year that found private probation services could neither unilaterally extend probationers’ sentences, nor supervise electronic monitoring services under existing state law, according to the Southern Center for Human Rights’ Kathryn Hamoudah. The bill aims to change that law so the firms can do what they were told not to by a judge. It authorizes probation firms to seek electronic monitoring for any misdemeanor, including traffic offenses, and to get permission from a judge to extend a probation sentence before the individual gets a hearing to contest the extension. It also makes explicit a probationer’s obligation to pay fees and that a probationer may be jailed for failure to pay.

Some legislators attempted to include provisions that increase oversight of the industry, but those provisions were “stripped from the bill” as it moved through committee, according to the Augusta Chronicle. Instead, provisions to make every element of private probation secret were left intact. The bill would eliminate public access to information about how much these firms are being paid, how much they are charging in fees, who is under supervision, and even how many people are on probation.

Gov. Nathan Deal (R) has not said whether he will sign the bill.

Private probation firms are a growing industry that, like private prisons, stand to profit from criminalizing more conduct, and have an incentive to lobby for policies that send more individuals to probation and/or jail. In Georgia, an existing law that expanded the role of private prison companies passed after a private probation firm paid the head of the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles $75,000 to lobby for the law. That official was eventually convicted of public corruption, but the law he backed remains on the books.

Jailing individuals who can’t afford to pay — so-called “debtors’ prisons” was deemed unconstitutional more than 30 years ago. Judges are required to assess ability to pay before imposing any criminal sanctions, but lawsuits and investigations allege they frequently either skip that step entirely, or use insufficient measures to deem even those who are homeless or on public assistance capable of paying.