Private probation finding itself in the spotlight
There’s no denying that things are heating up for Georgia’s private probation companies. Not only are local lawyers suing Sentinel Offender Services with individual suits challenging the constitutionality of private probation, but they also have a class action suit alleging Sentinel does not have the required contract to operate within Columbia County.
Without a valid contract, Sentinel would have no legal basis for collecting fees, and lacking that legal basis could prove costly.
Then, earlier in November, the law office of the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit public interest law firm dedicated to enforcing the rights of people involved in the criminal justice systems of Georgia and Alabama, submitted a report to the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Council outlining several complaints regarding the privatization of Georgia’s criminal justice system.
According to the Pew Center on the States, Georgia currently has the highest rate of individuals under correctional control in the nation. While the national average is one in 31, Georgia’s rate, which includes people on probation or parole as well as those in prison or in jail, is one in 13.
One in 13 Georgians are either on probation, on parole, in prison or in jail.
Georgia also leads the nation with the highest number of adults on probation, 53 percent of whom are on misdemeanor probation. Many of these 244,000 people are being administered by one of the 35 private probation companies authorized to work in the state.
According to the report, Sentinel alone has 79 contracts with Georgia courts, and with the reclassification of some low-level crimes as misdemeanors, the pool of those involved with private probation stands to grow.
“The lack of transparency and consistency across courts contributes to the fact that, in large part, this industry makes money off the backs of poor people — those that are not financially able to pay their fines in full on the day they appear in court — and avoids accountability,” the report reads.
The report also points to a lack of consistency regarding how a person’s ability to pay is determined before the person is entered into the private probation system.
“These responsibilities do not clearly reside with either the courts or the probation companies, and in many instances are taken up by neither,” the report says. “People placed on probation, meanwhile, are informed of the monthly sum they are ordered to pay, but seldom have awareness of their rights regarding inability to pay and the threat of jail.”
Dale Allen, chief probation officer for Athens-Clarke County, told the Metro Spirit in the November 15 feature story, “Augusta’s Probation Problem,” that his county-run department, which replaced private probation following concerns about the lack of accountability, will find a way to work with those on probation, either by converting fines to community service or waiving supervision fees if a person is truly indigent.
“That’s where I think you’ve got a huge difference between private and government,” he said. “Private can’t do that because that’s their profit.”
Georgia code declares the records of private probation’s relationship with the probationers confidential and further precludes the annual report sent back to the legislature from containing information identifying individual private companies or their contracts.
The report stops short of demanding an end to private probation, but makes a series of recommendations, including providing a 30-day window for non-indigent offenders to pay fees and fines owed the court.
“It is wasteful to force people into probation for a reason as arbitrary as not having hundreds of dollars with them on the day they appear in court,” the report states. “Though some courts may choose to give defendants a short window of time to gather funds, there is little consistency in this practice throughout the state.”
Another major recommendation is making sure that at least 50 percent of each probation payment goes toward the original fine, something the current lack of oversight can’t always determine. You Might Also Like: