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Georgia Law Giving More Power and Secrecy to Private Probation Companies Vetoed

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a bill that would have expanded the powers of private probation companies and shrouded their activities in secrecy.

House Bill 837 was introduced shortly after lawsuits were filed in Richmond and counties to challenge the constitutionality of private companies carrying out judicial processes. It also sought to end relief in a 2013 ruling that prohibited private companies from extending probationary sentences without court action, which also meant they must pay back thousands of dollars to probationers they illegally extended.

According to Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights HB 837 was “a gift to the private probation industry.” Gifts, however, come without an expectation of a return. This bill was sponsored by legislators who received campaign contributions and support for other offices.

Geraghty, nonetheless, has strong support for her position that HB 837 would have been a boon to private probation companies operating in Georgia. When state lawmakers turned the supervision of misdemeanor probationers over to local government in 2000, they created an industry. Local governments were ill-equipped to handle the task, and they were glad to hand the supervision over the companies who charged the government nothing in return for retaining the probationary supervision fees.

It has turned out to be a prosperous industry, for 80 percent of people who faced misdemeanor offenses in Georgia received probation. The state considers traffic offenses to be criminal, so even those who run a stop sign can end up with misdemeanor probation.

Georgia’s private probation companies supervise nearly 300,000 a year. The state’s average probation sentence is almost seven years, twice the length of the national average. Those on misdemeanor probation pay $39 to $44 a month; felony supervised probation by state employees, by contrast, cost only $23 per month. Those fees allowed Georgia’s private prison companies to report more than $40 million in revenue.

HB 837 would have increased revenue, “for example, it would have permitted private companies to require electronic monitoring for misdemeanor and traffic offenses like driving without a license, failing to stop at a stop sign, or possession of a small amount of marijuana,” said Geraghty. “Private companies like electronic monitoring because it makes them huge profits. They routinely charge over $2,000 per year for such monitoring in misdemeanor cases. This is in addition to criminal fines, probation fees and surcharges.”

In addition, HB 837 would have exempted private probation company reports, files, records, and “papers of whatever kind relative to the supervision of probationers” from Georgia’s Open Records law. That provision would have state secret,” said Geraghty.

The bill’s supporter, State Sen. Jesse Stone, said he was only trying to reach a compromise between those who supported privatized probation and those who erer against it. “I respectfully disagree with Sen. Stone,” said Geraghty. “This bill was brought at the behest of the private industry.”

Last year, a top official for Sentinel Offender Services testified that the company spent about $500,000 on lobbyists in Georgia. “According to State Ethics Commission records, the Private Probation Association of Georgia had eight lobbyists this year’s legislative session at a cost of more than $10,000 each,” reported the Augusta Chronicle most of Sentinel’s contracts are in Georgia, and it revenue in June 2012 was more than $5.8 million.

Stone is well-liked by the private probation lobby. On Feb. 18, Michael Popplewell, the owner of CRSA Probation Services wrote a letter recommending Stone to become the next Burke County State Court judge. Burke County contracts with CRSA Probation and in his capacity as Judge, Stone would contract for private probation services, amongst other duties.

Gov. Deal, however, put the brakes on expanding the powers of the private probation companies. “There are a lot of red flags that were raised in the audit,” said Deal in referring to a late April 2014 report by The Georgia Department of Audits. “We need to revisit where the auditors made suggestions… I think we can do a better job of that.”

Sources: Augusta Chronicle; Huffington Post;; 

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