Georgians were spared a bill that would have given private probation firms even more leeway to extract profit from the state’s poorest and lowest-level criminal defendants, after Gov. Nathan Deal (R) surprised opponents by vetoing the bill Tuesday.
Deal reasoned that the bill attempted to thwart an ongoing court challenge to the practices of Georgia’s private probation firms. A ruling in that case held that private probation services could neither unilaterally extend probationers’ sentences, nor supervise electronic monitoring services under existing state law, and is still going through the appeals process. But the bill aimed to change the law so that firms could do what a judge told them not to.
“[T]his legislation seeks to have a preemptive impact on any decision in that appeal,” Deal said.
Several courts have issued scathing rebukes of Georgia’s private probation practices. And the veto comes just a few days after a state audit found a host of violations by private probation firms, including continuing to improperly extend probationers’ sentences, improperly seeking arrest warrants for nonpayment, and misallocating payments to the firms’ own supervision fees rather than the court. The audit called for much greater oversight of the industry, even as the bill would have given the firms more free rein.
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 audit found that firms are now requiring individuals to report to probation officers more often than most felony offenders, and then use failure to report as a basis for threatening arrest. They found that some of these arrest warrants and threats for arrest were simply illegal moves to compel payment, while many more were a “questionable use of resources.” Almost a third of the cases analyzed in the audit resulted in a request for an arrest warrant at some point during their probation.
Georgia’s law has already given the state’s private firms room to operate and grow, and private firms now supervise the vast majority of the state’s misdemeanor offenders, according to audit data:
The audit also found that half of private probation contracts did not authorize any oversight audit, and even those that did were mostly only financial audits rather than compliance audits. The bill vetoed by Gov. Deal sought to make even less information publicly available on these firms’ practices, by making private probation records secret. Deal also cited this provision as a primary objection to the bill, saying, “I favor more transparency over private probation services.”