November 11, 2013: Willie James Gilyard claims a private probation company detained him for probation fees he did not owe.
Photo: BRANT SANDERLIN /BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
Photo: BRANT SANDERLIN /BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Governor may veto private probation bill

Gov. Nathan Deal has suggested that he might veto a bill that would allow private probation companies, contracted by cities and counties across the state, to keep secret from the public details such as how many people they supervise and how much they collect in fines.

The private probation industry has grown into a $40 million a year business in the years since the 2001 Legislature shifted the responsibility for overseeing low-level offenders from the state to local courts. Many counties and cities hired private companies to supervise people sentenced for offenses such as driving without a license, public drunkenness or possession of small amounts of marijuana. Almost all those placed on probation couldn’t pay the fines levied as part of their sentences. Those who can pay are deemed to have fulfilled their sentences.

Last year, 14 former probationers sued Sentinel Offender Services, the largest of the 34 private probation companies operating in Georgia. According to the suits, Sentinel charged them fees for electronic monitoring and drug testing that the courts didn’t order. The lawsuits, which are being treated as one case, also said probationers — all poor — were threatened with jail if they didn’t pay.

The lawsuits recounted how the former probationers were taken to jail, sometimes years after they thought they had completed their sentences, and held until they paid their debts to Sentinel.

A Richmond County Superior Court judge ruled last September private probation companies had no legal authority to provide electronic monitoring.

Defense attorneys and advocates also pushed unsuccessfully to cap supervision fees and to require the companies to report to the state more details about their businesses — how much they collect in supervision fees and for electronic monitoring and drug and alcohol testing.

A bill was drafted to give the companies and the state courts the authority Judge Daniel Craig said they did not have. And, as HB 837 moved through the General Assembly this year, language was added to make secret information probation companies must provide the state.

Advocates for the probationers have been vocal in their opposition. “Why are we elevating the interests of private corporations above the public’s interest in open government?” said Sarah Geraghty with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which opposed the bill.

Deal said he, too, is concerned with a privacy component to a bill.

Despite top-tier lobbyists and the support of prosecutors and judges in state and municipal courts, the governor suggested in an interview with Atlanta public radio state WABE that he may veto House Bill 837.

“Part of the bill that concerns me is the clause that was added in sort of late in the session about the secrecy of the records, of not making those available for inspection. I have asked some people to look at the language to see exactly what it does but we have not made a final call on that yet,” Deal said on Monday.

Deal has until April 29 to sign or veto the bill or it will become law without his signature.

The Georgia Supreme Court will hear an appeal of Craig’s ruling in June.

The bill sponsor, Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, did not respond to voice mail messages or emails seeking comment Tuesday.

Judges and prosecutors advocated for putting into law that misdemeanor sentences could be extended if the probationer stopped reporting and paying their fines. Without the change — and if Craig’s ruling survived the appeal — there would be chaos in local courts. One after the other, judges and solicitors told lawmakers that probationers could avoid paying their fines and supervision fees by simply disappearing until the time had run out. They said being able to stop the clock running on their sentences would ensure that absconding did not free them of their obligation to pay.

“Removing tolling would make misdemeanor probation unenforceable, ” Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Smyrna, said during Senate debate of the bill.

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