Overhaul of Georgia’s probation system gains final passage

Track legislation

It’s crunch time in Georgia’s General Assembly, with only two working days left in the legislative session. To see where particular bills and resolutions stand, check out The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Legislative Navigator at http://legislativenavigator.myajc.com/.

Georgia’s troubled misdemeanor probation system, which is widely used by judges as a high-cost payment program for traffic fines, would be overhauled under legislation passed Friday by the Georgia Senate.

House Bill 310, which also would create a new state agency to oversee probation and parole supervision, needs only Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature to become law.

The creation of the new Department of Community Supervision and the probation overhaul for misdemeanors are part of Deal’s criminal justice package for this year. The governor has said placing probation and parole supervision under one roof would help the state coordinate its supervision work and reduce recidivism.

Most local courts across Georgia outsource misdemeanor probation supervision to private probation companies. Critics of the system say the profit motives of those companies can turn probation payment plans into predatory loans and have led to illegal lockups of indigent Georgians who couldn’t afford probation payments.

“This is a commendable first step toward restoring integrity to Georgia’s broken misdemeanor probation system,” said Sarah Geraghty, senior attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “But much more work remains to be done, and individual courts ultimately have the responsibility to make sure indigent defendants are not unfairly penalized for their poverty.”

The misdemeanor probation system was the subject of a blistering state audit released last year. The Georgia Supreme Court also ruled last fall that judges were routinely acting outside of what Georgia law authorized when they placed misdemeanor probation cases on hold if defendants stopped reporting.

HB 310 would impose new transparency requirements on probation companies. It would also limit fees in “pay only” cases and give judges the clear authority to waive fines and fees or order community service hours if the costs are beyond what an offender can afford.

Before jailing someone for failing to pay, the judge would have to find that the failure was willful, not the result of poverty. That’s already required by a U.S. Supreme Court decision, but some Georgia judges have ignored the requirement.

The legislation also would give judges the authority to put a misdemeanor probation case on hold if someone stops reporting.

Georgia places more people on probation than any other state, primarily because of Georgia’s unique use of probation to give people more time to pay off tickets. Probation fees, however, can easily double the overall cost of the ticket.

The Senate on Friday also approved House Bill 328, which includes other recommendations from the governor’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform. Among the changes included in the legislation: more consumer protections in the use of criminal history reports for employment screening and new opportunities for parole consideration for some nonviolent, repeat offenders. The bill was amended by the Senate and will have to go back to the House before it is sent to the governor.