Private probation firms on tap under House bill

Georgia would reform its misdemeanor probation system and create a new state agency to oversee probation and parole supervision under a bill that passed the House on Wednesday.

House Bill 310, sponsored by Public Safety Committee Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, is part of Gov. Nathan Deal's criminal justice reform package for this year.

Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, said the bill helps those who need it.

“If you believe in second chances, if you believe in redemption, if you’ve ever made a mistake and needed some correction, you can believe in this bill,” Coomer, one of Deal’s floor leaders, said.

The bill calls for sweeping changes for the state's troubled misdemeanor probation system, which was the subject of a scathing state audit and a Georgia Supreme Court case.

“Quite frankly, a lot of things got out of skew over the years,” Powell said, adding that the Supreme Court case “brought things to a grinding halt.”

Georgia places more people on probation than any other state, largely because local judges use probation as a costly payment plan for people who can’t afford to pay off traffic tickets on the day they go to court.

Many county and municipal courts across the state have outsourced misdemeanor probation to private companies who earn money from fees they collect from probationers.

The bill would impose new transparency requirements on probation companies, including a mandate that the companies disclose how much money they keep in probation fees and other charges.

The bill would also limit probation fees in “pay only” cases. These are cases where offenders do not need supervision, they just need time to pay off a fine.

Judges would also have clear authority to substitute community service hours for probation fees and waive fines and fees if they would cause a significant financial hardship.

The bill would require what the U.S. Supreme Court has already ordered: Before jailing someone for failing to pay, the judge must find that the failure was willful, not the result of poverty.

Judges and probation providers also get something they want. The bill would give judges clear authority to put misdemeanor probation cases on hold if someone stops reporting and can’t be found.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled last year that Georgia law did not authorize judges to pause misdemeanor probation sentences, which has been a routine practice for years.

The bill would also create a new Department of Community Supervision. That department would bring the state’s felony probation and parole officers under one umbrella. Deal has argued this would allow officers to better coordinate their supervision of adults and juveniles.

“This bill is good fiscal policy,” Coomer said. “It consolidates multiple agencies into one.”