Millions of dollars at stake on private probation bill


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spent months reviewing thousands of pages of documents and about a dozen lawsuits involving Georgia’s private probation system, which critics allege orders legally questionable arrests to collect fees. The AJC will continue following this story as the General Assembly and the state Supreme Court weigh in on how the industry will operate.

A bill meant to regulate the private probation industry and insulate it from legal challenge has taken a sharp turn in the General Assembly. Instead of instituting new rules, critics say the bill that won Senate approval Tuesday night is aimed at protecting the $40 million industry’s most legally questionable practices and shielding the public from how it operates.

A string of lawsuits say the private probation industry, which oversees Georgians on probation for misdemeanors such as traffic and petty drug offenses, illegally forces those under supervision to pay for things such as electronic monitoring and drug testing, beyond what was ordered by the courts.

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.

House Bill 837, which must return to the House for a vote after changes in the Senate, was purportedly written only to address some issues raised in a pending Richmond County lawsuit that supporters of private probation said threaten the industry.

It should have been simple, said Athens-Clarke County Solicitor General C.R. Chisholm, who prosecutes misdemeanor cases.

“The idea behind that bill was to fix that problem,” said Chisholm, president of the Georgia Association of Solicitors-General. “Then (legislators added) a number of amendments to address issues with private probation.”

Tens of millions of dollars are on the line, and the lobbying reflects that.

On one side are the attorneys and advocates for people supervised by private probation companies who see HB 837 as an opportunity to fix problems they saw with the system. They want caps on supervision fees and requirements that companies give notice before moving to secure arrest warrants for probationers who absconded, meaning they stopped reporting and paying their fees. They also are seeking transparency about how much the firms are charging.

On the other side are the private probation companies who have pushed through, so far, changes that could make them stronger. One primary concern of the industry is that certain information be kept from the public that it said could put companies at a competitive disadvantage.

It’s a significant issue in Georgia, which a Human Rights Watch study recently named as having more people under the supervision of private probation companies than any other state. The group put the value of the industry in Georgia at $40 million.

“There’s a lot of money involved,” Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, a member of the Senate Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, said of the lobbying involving HB 837.

In recent weeks, industry lobbyists persuaded legislators to write into the bill language that would bar the public from access to data that the companies are required to provide to the state and the courts — numbers for such things as warrants issued, people supervised and court fines collected.

“I can think of no rational reason to hide such information from members of the public whose tax dollars fund the courts of this state,” said Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The companies also want their fees kept secret for competitive reasons even though they essentially charge probationers the same rates.

“There was no intent to remove from public records any information that is currently available,” one of the industry’s lobbyists, John Bozeman, wrote in an email to the AJC. “We are willing to look at that if there is an issue in the way it’s drafted. In fact, we have increased disclosure requirements by codifying greater disclosure of records to probationers.”

Bozeman said one of the improvements that benefits probationers in HB 837 is that once every three months, they can copy at no charge information in their files such as payment and reporting histories, but they cannot see case notes.

Advocates persuaded legislators to require a court hearing on whether it’s appropriate to issue a tolling order, which would stop the clock from running on the sentences of probationers who have stopped reporting. But the companies got wording that said hearings to determine whether a tolling order was “proper” would come after such an order was signed.

Bozeman said that if the probationer gives convincing evidence at the hearing that the tolling order was a mistake, a judge could go back and count the time of the sentence that had not been counted.

Geraghty called the current version of the legislation “a gift to the private probation industry.”

An AJC investigation in January detailed the power the industry has over the people its supervises, almost all of them on probation simply because they are too poor to pay their court fines right away and had to spread out payments. The investigation recounted how some probationers were forced to choose between eating or paying a $39-a-month supervision fee or the cost of setting up electronic monitoring.

The purported reason for HB 837 was to address issues Craig, who was overseeing 14 lawsuits against Sentinel, had with the way private probation operated. In addition to ruling against tolling, Craig also said private companies cannot provide electronic monitoring, which probationers pay for and is a significant profit center for the industry.

If the ruling were to stand, “the consequences would be disastrous,” Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Smyrna, said Tuesday evening before the Senate passed HB 837 on a 35-17 vote.

“Removing tolling would make misdemeanor probation unenforceable,” he said.

Chisholm has said that the ruling would mean that “victims with medical bills outstanding, property damage and property missing” would go unpaid without tolling.

But Fort said Tuesday night that tolling had gotten out of control.

“People’s sentences (were) going on and on after their sentences were supposed to be over because they could not afford to pay,” he said.