Georgia Supreme Court hears fight over private probation

The Atlanta Journal-Consstitution has been investigating private probation companies since the first of the year, finding that some pocketed large fees while doing little to supervise those under their watch. After several reports in the AJC, studies by Human Rights Watch and the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts confirmed the problems the AJC had already documented.

The Georgia Supreme Court was presented Monday with two questions: Is Georgia’s private probation system a flawed one that puts profits before justice? Or is it a way to keep the the lower courts running and ensure criminals pay their debts?

“This is the case being looked at by the world and how justice is perceived in Georgia,” argued Augusta attorney John Long, one of the lawyers representing 13 people who have filed suits challenging the system.

A national debate over for-profit probation has largely focused on Georgia, which uses private probation more than any other state. Georgia private probation companies collect about $40 million a year in supervision fees for low-level misdemeanor offenders, primarily from people who didn't have the means to pay court fines for offenses such as illegal lane change, drunken driving or trespassing.

The lawsuits contend that it is unconstitutional for Sentinel Offender Services, or any private probation company, to impose requirements not ordered by the courts, including electronic monitoring of probationers and extended sentences for those who don’t comply with company terms.

Private probation company lawyer James Ellington, who argued for Sentinel Offender Services, said the 13 “convicted criminals” were trying to “usurp the court’s ability” to punish them for their offenses by bringing lawsuits challenging the roles of companies like Sentinel.

Without those tools, Ellington argued, municipal and state court judges will simply have to jail people who can’t pay fines immediately because there will be no way to enforce their sentences. Consequently, jails will become crowded and taxpayers will have to cover the costs of keeping low-level misdemeanor probation violators locked up.

Lawyers for the one-time probationers say that Sentinel illegally extended sentences and imposed additional requirements in order to increase fees it could collect. Like other companies, Sentinel often provided the additional, expensive services that the courts did not necessarily require, the attorneys have said.

Attorney John Bell called the system “cash register probation.”

“We’re challenging the legal authority of private probation companies to take money from citizens,” Bell said. “A fortune is being made by these private probation companies. This system serves solely to enrich the pockets of the private probation companies.”

A national debate about private probation started last year after lawsuits were filed in east Georgia claiming that Sentinel was squeezing probationers for fees they could not afford. The suits say Sentinel threatened some probationers with jail to push them to stay current on their payments to the company.

Monday’s arguments before the Georgia Supreme Court were set up a year ago when Superior Court Judge Daniel Craig ruled that the law doesn’t allow the private sector to impose electronic monitoring, drug and alcohol testing or counseling.

While Craig’s order applied only to the three counties in the Richmond Judicial Circuit, a ruling by the Supreme Court will effect all 32 companies in Georgia. The companies are supervising about 340,000 misdemeanor probationers statewide at any given time.

State court judges filed briefs with the Supreme Court supporting Sentinel, but earlier this month the Judicial Qualifications Commission ruled that Georgia’s judges and judicial organizations are prohibited from filing friend-of-the-court briefs in pending cases.

The Supreme Court justices have until late November or early December to rule.

Regardless of their decision, the industry and advocates for the probationers are expected to resume their efforts win legislative changes next year.

In the 2014 session, municipal and state court judges pushed for reforms, claiming that their courthouses would fall into chaos without private probation services, which are funded by supervision fees the offenders pay. The judges said local governments are not set up to provide supervision.

Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the industry bill that was passed earlier this year because it also would have protected companies from public disclosure of how they operate and their profits.