Bill approved protecting private probation companies

The Legislature gave final approval Thursday to a bill that was designed to protect the private probation business in Georgia and grew to block key information about the industry from public view.

House Bill 837 was drafted to address issues that a Richmond County judge raised in September in a ruling in 14 pending lawsuits that the industry feared would destroy it.

The lawyer who brought the suits said HB 837 should have no effect on the suits or an appeal of Judge Daniel Craig’s ruling before the Georgia Supreme Court.

Private companies have managed probation supervision in state and local courts since 2001 for people found guilty of misdemeanors or violating local ordinances.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation earlier this year found that such companies have pocketed large fees while, in at least some cases, doing little to supervise those under their watch.

For the most part, people who have been convicted of minor offenses — such as traffic violations, public drunkenness, possession of small amounts of marijuana — are placed on probation because they don’t have the money to pay their court fines all at once. As they pay off their fines, they also pay monthly supervision fees to the probation companies of $35 to $45, along with other costs that might involve electronic monitoring or drug and alcohol testing.

Last year, 14 former probationers filed lawsuits in Richmond County claiming they were charged for electronic monitoring and drug testing that the courts did not order. They said their probation officers threatened to have them jailed if they didn’t pay, despite their claims that they didn’t have the money. Each one said in the suits that they were arrested years after they thought they had completed their sentences, and that they were held in jail, at local taxpayers’ expense, until they paid their debts to the company. In this case, that was Sentinel Offender Services, the largest of the probation companies operating in the state and the contractor for Richmond County.

A key issue in the suits is the practice of tolling, which involves courts, at the behest of the private probation companies, stopping the clock on sentences for probationers who have stopped reporting and are no longer paying their supervision fees.

Craig ruled that it was unconstitutional to stop the clock from running on probationers supervised by a private company. He also said private probation companies could not provide electronic monitoring.

Though the lawsuits only named Sentinel, the other 33 companies operating in Georgia joined in the legislative fight out of concern over Craig’s ruling.

HB 837 would allow tolling to continue and permit companies to charge for electronic monitoring, but Jack Long, the Augusta lawyer who brought the 14 suits in Richmond County, said the bill won’t affect his cases.

The biggest impact of the bill, he said, “is it further restricts the open records statute.”

HB 837 would keep secret from the public such basic information as how many low-level offenders are under the companies’ supervision, how much they collected in court fines and how many arrest warrants have been issued as a result of tolling. If a court asks, the companies must tell it how much they collected in fees for supervision, electronic monitoring, and drug and alcohol testing, but the public cannot see that information.

Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, has said that she can think “of no rational reason to hide such information from members of the public.”

The industry also fought off an effort to include a cap on supervision fees in HB 837.

The Private Probation Association of Georgia declined to comment on the bill’s final passage. The bill now awaits the signature of the governor before it becomes law.