State’s for-profit probation system a quiet scandal

Georgia’s for-profit probation system for misdemeanor offenders is extensive, with an estimated 140,000 people under its control. It is also grossly inefficient, prone to corruption, and often abusive and unfair to the poor people caught in its tentacles.

But confronted with mounting evidence of dysfunction within the system, the 2014 General Assembly responded not by fixing it, but by passing a law that would have allowed the probation industry to hide its dysfunction and corruption from the public.

To his credit, Gov. Nathan Deal intervened last week by vetoing HB 837. “I favor more transparency over private probation services and therefore I am not in favor of this information being exempt from the Georgia Open Records Act,” he said in his veto message. So at least we’re not taking a big step backward.

Deal’s decision may have been guided by an alarming report released last month by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts. It describes a misdemeanor probation system that operates with almost no government oversight and with little regard for state law or for the well-being of its clients. Its primary goal is the generation of profit.

(A little useful background: The misdemeanor probation system handles those convicted of petty crimes such as shoplifting, marijuana possession and traffic violations. Those who can’t afford to pay fines are often put on probation instead, requiring regular meetings with a parole officer and sometimes additional requirements such as drug and alcohol monitoring. The offender is required by the court to pay the private probation provider for its services; the more meetings and services the companies can demand of its “clients,” the more money they make.)

Here’s some of what the audit discovered:

“In many cases, providers can increase reporting frequency to a point that exceeds that of most felony probationers… Probation providers could set monthly or weekly payment amounts that were much higher than necessary to collect funds owed during the probation term … probation providers failed to consider whether probationers had the ability to meet financial obligations.”

Take Thomas Barrett, a homeless man who pleaded guilty in 2012 to shoplifting a can of beer. To avoid jailing Barrett at taxpayers’ expense, a Richmond County judge fined him $200 and put him on probation. However, because Barrett couldn’t pay an $80 startup fee to his private probation provider, he stayed in jail for almost three months until he could scrounge up the money.

Once freed, Barrett’s sole source of income was selling his blood plasma, and monthly probation and monitoring fees of $360 were more than he made. A man who couldn’t afford a $200 fine eventually owed his probation provider more than $1,000, and the provider demanded that he be put back in jail until the debt was settled.

According to the audit, local judges often award lucrative contracts to private companies without competitive bidding, which means that many Georgia probationers pay twice as much for services as those in other states. Companies charge “clients” $30 or even $50 for a drug test that costs them $6, and because the people involved are poor, powerless and at the mercy of the company, they have no protection.

A state agency, the County and Municipal Probation Advisory Council, is empowered to oversee the probation industry, but the audit found repeated failures to perform that duty adequately. CMPAC officials explained that they simply lacked the resources to do the job expected of them.

“In the case of private providers, a government can outsource the provision of services,” the audit warns. “But it cannot outsource the responsibility for ensuring the services are provided properly.”

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Georgia has done.