Georgia leader in private probation — a $40 million industry

Digging Deep. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spent months reviewing thousands of pages of documents and about a dozen lawsuits that exposed the flaws in a private probation system that runs under lax regulations and orders legally questionable arrests to collect fees. The AJC will continue following this important story as the General Assembly and the state Supreme Court weigh in on how the industry will operate.

More people in Georgia are placed under the supervision of private probation companies than any other state, generating $40 million a year in supervision fees that are disproportionately paid by the poor, according to a study by Human Rights Watch to be released today.

Private probation companies are responsible for monitoring and collecting fines from Georgians who commit misdemeanor crimes, such as traffic offenses and public intoxication, but who cannot pay upfront. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation last month found that such companies have pocketed large fees while, in at least some cases, doing little to supervise those under their watch. And a string of lawsuits argue the companies have illegally forced offenders to pay for things, such as electronic monitoring and drug testing, beyond what was ordered by the courts.

The Human Rights Watch report underscores another criticism of private probation: The companies often order the arrest of those under their supervision who fail to pay fees owed to the company. And, when those misdemeanor offenders wind up in jail, taxpayers are on the hook, challenging the notion that private probation companies provide great savings to government.

“The most shocking thing for me was the extent to which courts are using probation companies just as a debt collection system (and) putting people on probation just because they are too poor to pay their fines,” said Human Rights Watch senior researcher Chris Albin-Lackey. “The courts aren’t even pretending that these offenders need any kind of supervision. It’s purely an effort to increase the efficiency of their collections.”

For the most part, misdemeanor and local ordinance violators are on probation because they were unable to pay court fines immediately, known as “pay only probation.” The probation companies collect the fines and provide electronic monitoring. Their contracts say the companies cannot charge probationers if they are indigent, but the companies are the ones who tell judges when probationers are too poor to pay.

If they don’t pay, the companies will ask the courts to issue arrest warrants. People have been jailed sometimes years later because the company said they still owed fees.

“We see courts collecting their check every few weeks or every few months from the private probation company and not asking how they are getting it,” Albin-Lackey said. “That’s extremely lax. How can you let a private probation company use the courts to collect fees and not asking how much they are collecting?”

Georgia is the only state that requires private probation companies to report how many people they supervise and how much they collect in court fines. But the companies do not report supervision fees, which are usually $39 a month. Using the $9 the companies collect for the state crime victims emergency fund, Human Rights Watch estimated the almost three dozen companies operating in Georgia made $40 million last year, not including extra profits from electronic monitoring or classes.

“Pay only probation is an extremely muscular form of debt collection masquerading as probation supervision, with all costs billed to the debtor,” the study reported.

Hall County Solicitor Stephanie Woodard told a House committee Tuesday that said prosecutors in state courts “are not all about the money. They are much more concerned with whether a defendant is complying with their domestic abuse counseling or substance abuse counseling.”

The president of the Georgia Council of State Court Judges, Clayton County State Court Judge Linda Cowen, said previously she would find it “hard to believe” anyone is jailed because they owed supervision fees to a private probation company. “There are lots of conditions of probation… What more often happens is they stop reporting when they are on probation.”

Rep. Alan Powell, chairman of the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, said Tuesday the private probation companies simply ensure that the court’s fines are paid and that they can do nothing without a judge’s approval.

“It’s really about getting that fine paid,” Powell, R-Hartwell, said in committee discussions of a bill designed to address issues with Georgia’s law allowing private probation.

One purpose of the legislation approved Tuesday was to clarify that private probation officers could perform essentially the same duties as a government probation officer.

Human Rights Watch questioned the ruthlessness of some private probation companies.

Last March, about 300 people responded to summonses to appear in DeKalb County’s Recorders Court, which primarily hears charges of violating traffic laws and animal control ordinances.

Human Rights Watch said those people learned once they were in court that they were called because they owed Judicial Correction Services supervision fees and were facing arrest. Albin-Lackey said 60 people were taken into custody that day because they could not immediately pay their debt to JCS. Albin-Lackey said some of the 60 may have found a way to pay once they were about to be locked up.

While there are private probation companies operating in more than 1,000 courts nationwide, the report focused only on Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi because those three states depend on private probation more than any other. In Georgia,there are private probation companies in 648 courts and in 2012 they were assigned more than 250,000 cases, not necessarily people, the report side. Alabama was second with private probation companies working in 150 courts, Albin-Lackey said.

“It seemed almost implausible that something like this was happening on a really large scale and nobody knew about it,” Albin-Lackey said. “We were overwhelmed by what we found.”