While all eyes were on Ferguson last week, the Georgia Supreme Court issued an important ruling on another element of the criminal justice system. In Georgia and elsewhere, a growing industry of private probation firms reap profit from criminalizing poor people’s inability to pay fines, fees, and traffic tickets.
The Georgia Supreme Court’s ruling did not go nearly as far as plaintiffs wanted to rein in the state’s expansive and unfettered private probation industry. It did, however, uphold lower courts’ finding that these firms did not have the legal authority to compound punishment by extending probation sentences when individuals can’t pay, in a practice known as “tolling.”
According to the trial court’s findings, potentially thousands of Georgians had their sentences illegally extended, and several of the named plaintiffs had been improperly hauled off to jail and/or subjected to electronic monitoring for alleged probation violations six years after their probation had ended for minor offenses like possession of marijuana and no proof of insurance. The firm at issue in this case, Sentinel Offender Services, also faced stern court rebuke in another case for holding open an arrest warrant that had expired two years earlier.
An Augusta Chronicle editorial called the “tolling” practice “one of the most egregious and, in our view, unconstitutional things we’ve ever seen in the criminal justice system.”
This latest class action lawsuit fell short of achieving the plaintiffs’ primary goal, which was to invalidate the state’s loosely regulated system for authorizing private probation firms. The court also overruled another holding that had invalidated private probation firms’ electronic monitoring of probationers. But the ruling has revived the issue of private probation firms, and prompted lawmakers from both parties to explore reforming the system in the ruling’s wake.
Georgia has one of the most extensive systems of local private probation firms that have profited from supervising those who committed minor violations like traffic tickets that don’t warrant jail time. It also has four times as many individuals on probation for low-level offenses as the national average, and the highest in the country.
Last year, a bill passed by the state legislature that would have given private probationers even more expansive power over probation sentences was vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal (R). The Republican chair of the state legislature’s House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Wendell Willard, told WABE that bill was rushed through the legislature without lawmakers really looking at it, and suspected that many provisions were added by the private probation firms themselves.
An earlier 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.
Wendell said after the ruling that the state is “overusing and abusing, perhaps, the need for probation,” and that he wanted a bill to reduce the number of offenders subject to probation. A state audit released just days after Deal’s veto found that illegally extending sentences is just one of a number of ways private probation firms are violating the law. Others include 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 passed by the legislature last year 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.