Georgia’s giant probation population undercuts focus on most dangerous

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

Georgia’s General Assembly resoundingly agreed in 2017 that having more people on probation than any other state wasn’t making Georgia safer. In fact, lawmakers found, the opposite was true.

The large numbers spread oversight too thin. So the legislature passed a law to cut the numbers and focus oversight on those considered the most dangerous.

Yet five years after Republicans and Democrats enthusiastically approved reforms, Georgia still leads the nation in probation. Now, with violent crime up in Georgia and local and state officials looking for ways to reverse the trend, the supervision system is facing new scrutiny.

Since June 2018, Georgia felons under state supervision have been linked to more than 3,500 cases of violent crime. The cases include roughly 680 homicides, 670 sexual criminal acts, 285 robberies and 1,870 other serious violent felonies, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of the state Department of Community Supervision’s internal tracking system.

Among them, at a time when a 33-year-old felon under supervision was wanted on a warrant last year, he allegedly shot and killed a young mother in Fulton County on Mother’s Day weekend. A 32-year-old man was arrested last June in a double-stabbing at a Coweta County home where police found a woman bleeding in the driveway and a man laying dead inside. And a 29-year-old was arrested in July in connection with a shooting at a DeKalb County gas station that left two men dead.

The cases have prompted some in law enforcement to question the effectiveness of the reformed supervision system, and in November Commissioner Michael Nail, who leads the Department of Community Supervision, went before a legislative committee and addressed criticism that the system was failing to protect the public.

Nail told lawmakers that his agency is “not perfect” but its 2,000 employees are doing a “fantastic job” across the state. They live out the 2017 reforms, he said, by using supervision techniques proven by research to be effective.

Nail cited a decline in felonies committed by supervisees as evidence that those on probation aren’t responsible for the increase in violent crime. The agency has also tracked an increase in Georgians who stay on the right path while under supervision and successfully complete probation.

“I don’t have a magic wand or a crystal ball that will say what is driving violent crime,” Nail told the state Senate’s public safety committee. “But what I can share with you — the data and the research that we run — shows that we are not the culprit of the increase in violent crime.”

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Even so, some public safety officials say that dangerous probationers aren’t being monitored as closely as they need to be.

As the city of LaGrange in 2020 experienced its highest homicide spike in decades, a police department analysis found significant numbers of suspects were on probation, parole or on bond awaiting trials.

This past March, the LaGrange City Council adopted a resolution questioning the state supervision system.

There are too many people on probation to effectively supervise them with the current personnel, said LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar. But the problems extend beyond the probation system itself, he said.

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“Based on my communication with community supervision officers, they are frustrated by the system, and it’s clear the issue is much broader,” Dekmar said. “The courts are sentencing individuals to probation despite having lengthy serious felony convictions and in some instances sentencing them on probation while they are on probation.

“The system has created significant public safety concerns.”

Dubious distinction

To cut the number of those under supervision, a key reform in the legislature’s revamp of the probation system was to allow for early termination of sentences of some felony probationers if they had done well after three years of supervision.

But that reform never took off.

A national report, released in December and covering 2020, found Georgia still — by far — leads the nation with its probation rate. The state’s probation population per 100,000 adults is more than triple the national average and nearly double the number of the second-ranked state.

Georgia has 190,475 people on felony probation, and 19,771 on parole, as of last year.

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

As of this past summer, the average caseload per DCS officer was 132, which is roughly the same as it was five years ago, when the average was 139. However, DCS said for 329 officers who handle “specialized” supervision for the highest-risk people on probation or parole, the caseload doesn’t exceed 40.

Georgia passed another law last year to try again to get the numbers down by allowing early termination for those doing well.

That change should cut the present numbers significantly. But it will roll out just as courts work to clear their COVID-19 backlogs and impose probation sentences in a new wave of cases that had been on hold while courts were closed.

Nail is worried about what’s coming his agency’s way as the backlog clears.

“I’m waiting for the dam to break,” Nail told senators last fall. “They are going to come to us for supervision. Who’s going to process those cases from the courts? We are.”

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Already, Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said, the state’s monitoring is looser than it used to be, and it’s common to discover felons who moved without reporting a change of address.

The state has switched to more video conferencing and phone calls to monitor those under supervision, he said.

He says he sees the results in the daily booking log at his jail: Many of those arrested, he said, are already on probation. The act of having to arrest them time after time points, in his mind, to a system that is broken. He said those committing the crimes often laugh at the state’s felony probation monitoring.

“It’s a joke,” he said.

The big picture

Nail said it’s easy to blame probation — especially when a violent crime happens — because it’s the last point in the system.

But he said that every day probation is asked to supervise thousands of people whose complex problems were never fully addressed, or maybe even recognized, by school systems, community organizations, the courts and others.

“Suddenly, they come our way, and they’re wanting us to fix them miraculously...,” Nail said. “What I think is totally unfair is to hold out a case without looking at the big picture. And without looking at the totality of what you’re up against.”

Nail told the Senate committee that it’s difficult for probation officers to find mental health and addiction resources to serve those under supervision, including those who leave prison with just a 30-day supply of medications.

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Criminal justice experts agree that to better protect the public and create a system that can focus on the most dangerous offenders, reforms will have to go deep.

One key consideration: the length of probation sentences imposed by the state’s judges. Many other states cap probation terms. Georgia doesn’t, and probation numbers are heavily driven by the length of those sentences.

After prison, the average Georgian is sentenced to 13 years on probation. In cases where the sentence was probation only, the average length is about 7 years, according to DCS.

Loading up lower-risk people with long sentences on probation and lots of requirements, conditions and programs will backfire, said Adam Gelb, president and CEO of the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan think tank focused on criminal justice policy.

“You make the biggest impact on public safety when you maximize focus on the people at greatest risk of reoffending,” he said. “It is absolutely counterproductive to have so many people under supervision for so long. And it would be a mistake even if there were double or triple the resources.”

‘Still watching you’

Ultimately, the job of supervision falls to officers like Andrew Houser. An assistant chief in the DCS Atlanta field office, Houser both manages a group of officers and helps with direct supervision of those on probation or parole.

His job requires him to be part social worker, part counselor and part cop. He’s personable and friendly but firm. Some he helps oversee have been on probation for years for property crimes and other non-violent offenses.

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

This fall, he was making rounds in Vine City, Washington Park and other neighborhoods west of downtown. At one stop, he checked on a convicted drug dealer’s residence status to make sure he was living in the location. Houser then paid a visit to a nearby boarding house to see a 69-year-old whose rap sheet goes back decades with more than a dozen stints in prison — most for property crimes.

At another stop, he talked with a man who has been on probation for nearly 10 years for a shoplifting charge.

At a nearby apartment, Houser checks on a man in his early 20s who’d been convicted of theft by receiving a few years ago. He had been placed in a mentoring program and told Houser he was hoping to start a catering business.

Recently, though, the young man had shown signs of slipping up and possible drug use. Houser tells him: “I’m still watching you” while he also encourages him and talks about his potential in life if he stays out of trouble.

“We give them the opportunity to make a change,” Houser says of his job. “We can’t make them not reoffend.”

AJC data specialist Jennifer Peebles and data reporter Eric Fan contributed to this report.