Georgia leads the nation in placing its citizens on probation, a distinction that is now being studied by the state’s criminal justice reform experts.
Georgia’s probation population at the end of last year was 471,067, according to statistics released Thursday by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. In spite of a 9 percent decline over the previous year, Georgia’s number was still the highest in the nation — by far.
Georgia also topped the charts for its probation rate, which was quadruple the national rate and more than double the rate posted by any other state.
The numbers include both felony and misdemeanor cases.
Some in Georgia say the numbers are significantly inflated, since Georgians on probation in more than one county are counted twice by the report.
But others say the numbers reflect an overuse of probation in Georgia, where courts contract with private probation companies to "supervise" and collect payments from people who can't afford to pay off expensive traffic tickets and other misdemeanor fines on the day they go to court.
"These figures are an embarrassment and a call to action," said Sarah Geraghty, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, who has filed lawsuits and complaints related to misdemeanor probation.
Geraghty said there is “no mystery” about why Georgia’s numbers are so high.
“Georgia leads the nation in the number of people on probation because of Georgia’s booming private probation industry,” she said. “About 80 percent of people on misdemeanor probation in Georgia are supervised by private companies. These companies have a profit motive to have as many people on probation as possible for as long as possible. It’s as simple as that.”
Misdemeanors make up more than half of the state’s probation cases, according to figures provided by the Georgia Department of Community Supervision, a new state agency tasked with overseeing probation providers.
Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael P. Boggs, co-chair of the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, this month convened a group of judges, attorneys, probation providers and other stakeholders to take a hard look at Georgia’s use of probation.
The reform council is the idea bank for Gov. Nathan Deal’s justice reform efforts. The council examined the state’s prison population and found effective ways to handle non-violent drug offenders in the community instead of behind bars. Boggs said at a meeting this month that it now makes sense to study whether Georgia’s approach to probation is the right one.
The Georgia General Assembly last year passed a bill requiring changes in the state's misdemeanor probation system, following a state audit that documented numerous failings and abuses. The Georgia Supreme Court also shook up the system, with a ruling that forced the dismissal of thousands of probation cases that had been placed on hold for months or years when a probationer stopped reporting.
The dismissal of old cases prompted by the court decision led to the 9 percent drop in Georgia’s probation numbers in 2014, according to the federal report.