Council to call for probation reforms

Sweeping changes may be coming to the state system that places thousands of Georgians a year on probation to pay off traffic tickets and other fines.

The Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform next week is expected to give final approval to a report that will call for limits on monthly probation fees imposed on people paying off fines over time. The council also wants probation providers — mostly private companies — to face better oversight and more transparency, which includes a proposal that companies disclose for the first time how much money they collect in supervision fees.

The council will also recommend changes to ensure that local courts determine whether probationers are too poor to pay fines, before locking them up for missing probation payments. That will bring them in line with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The council’s near-final proposal is likely to win the support of Gov. Nathan Deal. The council was his go-to source of ideas for the nationally-recognized justice system reforms he achieved during his first term.

Last year Deal asked the council, a panel of criminal justice experts, to recommend ways to improve misdemeanor supervision after he vetoed a probation bill over concerns it would allow too much secrecy for probation companies.

His veto came shortly after the release of a highly-critical state audit that documented widespread failures in the current system. Those included a lack of oversight by judges and abusive practices by probation officers such as improper threats to seek warrants, excessive reporting requirements and questionable methods for collecting payments.

“The moral imperative is clear,” said Georgia Appeals Court Judge Michael Boggs, co-chairman of the council. “The inequities and abuses that were pointed out in the audit and through anecdotal stories deserve immediate attention.”

Boggs also said it’s critical that probation companies be required to disclose more information about their operations to the public.

Georgia has the largest probation population in the nation, with more than 500,000 people under supervision in 2013, according to federal statistics. The state’s rate of placing people on probation is quadruple the national average.

“The recommendations of the council are a product of an inclusive dialogue between all stakeholders and represent a good step toward addressing many of the concerns raised by critics of the misdemeanor probation system in Georgia,” said Boggs, who has spent months studying probation.

Among the slate of recommendations the council has already endorsed is one that probation providers and the state’s judges desperately want: authority for courts to pause misdemeanor probation sentences if a defendant stops reporting and can’t be found. The Georgia Supreme Court shocked local judges and probation providers last year when it ruled that putting probation sentences on hold — an everyday practice known as “tolling” — was not authorized under state law for misdemeanor cases.

That ruling forced judges around the state to dismiss thousands of pending arrest warrants and release some people from jail because the original time on the sentences had expired. Judges say that without tolling, people placed on probation can avoid their ordered punishment if they can hide out long enough for their probation term to expire.

The Community Corrections Association of Georgia, an organization of probation providers, said it supports the recommendations forthcoming from the council.

“They address a legitimate public safety concern in resolving the tolling issue, while speaking to a number of the governor’s concerns related to transparency,” said John Prescott, the association’s president.

Jack Long, the Augusta attorney whose legal challenges of private probation led to the Georgia Supreme Court ruling, said he’s generally opposed to the outsourcing of probation to private companies. But he said the council’s recommendations for more transparency, as well as requirements to assess whether a probationer is indigent, would greatly improve the system.

“Overall, I take my hat off to the governor and the Criminal Justice Reform Council for addressing these issues in a positive way for the people of Georgia, especially those less fortunate,” Long said.

Sarah Geraghty, a senior attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, which has called for an overhaul of misdemeanor probation, said the council’s recommendation would go a long way toward fixing a troubled system.

“The legislature should go further, however,” Geraghty said, “and adopt a bright line rule against ‘pay only’ probation — a practice that unjustly penalizes indigent people by charging them double or more what a person of means would pay for the same offense.”

Georgia’s system started more than two decades ago, when the General Assembly gave local courts the option to hire private companies to handle misdemeanor probation. Private probation companies supervise 80 percent of Georgians on probation for misdemeanors.

An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that blue collar workers, teachers, the unemployed and many others who need time to pay off traffic fines flow into probation offices by the thousands, feeding cash payments into ATM-like machines or showing up to explain why they can’t pay.

Misdemeanor probation is used for some serious offenses, including DUIs, domestic violence and shoplifting offenses. In those cases, probation providers not only collect fines and fees. They also make sure that other requirements of probation are met, which can include paying restitution, following court restrictions, passing drug tests and completing classes that are designed to prevent another offense.

Many people are placed on probation, however, simply because they didn’t have enough money to pay off a traffic ticket on the day they went to court. Those cases usually come with monthly probation fees of $35 to $40 — even if the “supervision” involves nothing more than accepting payments. These so-called “pay only” probation cases would be treated differently than other probation cases under the council’s proposal. Fees in pay-only cases would be limited to three months, even if it takes much longer to pay off a fine.

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