Misdemeanor probation reforms on the table

Deal wants recommendations from criminal justice experts

At the direction of Gov. Nathan Deal, a panel of criminal justice experts has been studying the state’s misdemeanor probation system and is expected to make a slate of recommendations.

“Transparency and oversight are probably the two key catch phrases that are driving what we’re doing,” said Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs, co-chair of the governor’s Criminal Justice Reform Council.

A highly-critical state audit released earlier this year found widespread failures in many courts that place thousands of Georgians a year on probation for traffic offenses and other misdemeanors.

Members of the council have reviewed dozens of recommendations included in the blistering audit and have also met with the system’s stakeholders — judges, probation companies, attorneys representing people on probation and state employees who monitor probation offices around the state.

Deal made criminal justice reform a key priority during his first term, and he has relied on the council to recommend legislation that has already transformed Georgia’s policies on who needs to be in prison, how to handle juvenile offenders and how to smooth the transition from prison to the community, in order to try to lower the chances that someone who has served time will come back to prison again.

Deal’s request that the council take on misdemeanor probation came in the wake of his veto of a misdemeanor probation bill passed by the General Assembly this year. The governor said he vetoed the bill because he had concerns that it would allow private companies that supervise thousands of Georgians on probation to avoid public disclosure of information about their operations.

Deal also said at the time he was concerned about findings in the audit.

The audit found that some courts did not have proper contracts with their probation providers and did not properly oversee the work done by the probation offices. The audit reported a list of shortcomings in the way probation offices handled people on probation, sometimes failing to hold them accountable and other times subjecting them to improper up-front charges, excessive reporting requirements and improper extensions of probation terms.

About 80 percent of Georgians on misdemeanor probation are supervised by for-profit companies. Many Georgians are placed on probation simply to give them time to pay off traffic fines they couldn’t afford on the day they went to court.

The state audit recommended some action by the General Assembly, but many of its recommendations called on the courts to improve the situation themselves. The Community Corrections Association of Georgia, which represents probation providers, is supporting ideas for new standards, including those covering warrants and making sure contracts are clear when it comes to reporting requirements and how payments are allocated.

Some attorneys who have been critical of private probation hope to see major changes in the law that would dramatically alter the state’s approach to misdemeanor probation.

“Our county and municipal courts have ceded far too much control to private, for-profit companies, and indigent citizens have paid the price,” said Sarah Geraghty, a senior attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Significant legislative reforms are needed to protect the indigent and to restore peoples’ faith in the integrity of the courts.”

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