State audit finds problems with private probation system

November 11, 2013: Willie James Gilyard claims a private probation company detained him for probation fees he did not owe.



November 11, 2013: Willie James Gilyard claims a private probation company detained him for probation fees he did not owe.

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigated the use of private probation companies in January and found that some of the companies pocketed large fees while, in at least some cases, doing little to supervise those under their watch. During the 2014 legislative session, the AJC continued to follow the industry through legislation aimed at making changes to the system.

Courts provide little oversight of private probation companies and the companies do little, as well, to supervise the low-level offenders they are under contract to watch, according to a state audit.

Critics called the report a “blistering” assessment of a system that involves courts contracting with private companies to supervise mostly poor offenders, saying it emphasizes the collection of fines and supervision fees from the probationers over the public’s safety.

The audit, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and set for release Friday, describes a system that makes up the rules on the fly, has no accounting of funds, allows companies to collect more money than they are due, and lets probationers get by without paying fines or performing other court-ordered actions.

The report by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts is critical of the lack of transparency in how courts contract with these companies and how much the firms collect.

The governor must decide by Tuesday whether to veto or allow a bill to become law that would make secret much of the information now available about the probation industry.

“We found issues ranging from the courts not setting adequate expectations for the providers to reporting requirements that … made it difficult (for probationers) to fulfill their obligations,” said Leslie McGuire, the director of the performance audit division.

The president of the Council of State Court Judges did not respond to a request for comment. Only one public probation provider responded to the auditors’ critiques, writing in several places in the report that it was addressing the issues or it already had made changes.

“The audit offers a blistering critique of our misdemeanor probation system,” said Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights. “The primary focus of many of these courts has become money collection rather than the more important goals of public safety and rehabilitation.”

The review took two years. In that time, two auditors examined contracts, reports and files for 390 probationers under supervision by private and government probation officers. According to the audit, the review included six state courts and 14 municipal courts. The audit did not name the companies or the courts that were inspected.

As a result, the auditors made 50 recommendations “that if acted upon will improve the courts’ oversight of misdemeanor probationers as well as individual providers’ supervising probationers to make sure sentences are fulfilled appropriately,” McGuire said.

The audit confirmed the following abuses that the AJC found in its own investigation in January:

  • Some private probation firms have demanded fees for electronic monitoring or drug and alcohol testing that was not ordered by the courts.
  • Arrest warrants had been sought by some companies for probationers who had paid all their court fines but still owed the companies for supervising them.
  • The threat of jail time had been used by some companies to force indigent probationers to choose between paying monthly supervision fees of $35 to $45 or buying food or paying other living expenses.

The private probation business has grown into a $40 million-a-year industry since 2000, when Georgia law freed the state Department of Corrections of the responsibility of supervising misdemeanor probationers. In addition to the millions in profits from fees for supervision, electronic monitoring, and drug and alcohol testing, the audit said the public and private probation entities also took in about $132 million a year in fines paid to the courts and restitution returned to crime victims.

“We definitely found plenty of problems,” said Matt Taylor, who supervised the audit.

Most of the low-level offenders — such as people who made illegal lane changes, were caught with small amounts of marijuana or were drunk and disorderly — are poor. They were put on probation simply because they needed time to pay court fines.

The problems auditors found include:

  • Private probation companies paid themselves before paying the courts. Auditors found instances in which probationers paid hundreds of dollars in advance for months of supervision only to have the judge reduce their sentences so they no longer needed to be supervised. They were never refunded fees collected for time they no longer needed to be supervised.
  • Judges couldn't tell from the information provided by probation companies in monthly and quarterly reports whether probationers were complying with court orders, how frequently they met with probation officers, how much they were paying in supervision fees or where those funds were going.
  • A process of contracting with private companies that is not transparent. Neither the chief judge nor a county official signed contracts with private probation providers in one-fourth of the files reviewed.
  • Courts didn't tell probation officers how often they should meet with a probationer. Consequently, officers made it up as they went.
  • Probation officers — not judges — extended the frequency or time probationers must report, which produced more profits for the companies. "We found at least 10 cases in which the probationer was required to continue reporting and paying financial obligations beyond the expiration of the probation term," the audit said. Yet there also were instances where probation officers would unilaterally change the requirements and allow a probationer to pay extra to avoid court-ordered community service.
  • Files containing already-completed requests for arrest warrants were given to judges should probationers fall behind in payments. In one file, there was a warrant request that stated "all attempts to locate the subject have failed" even though that probationer was reporting regularly. Then there were files with nothing in them.
  • Probation officers who did nothing when a probationer stopped reporting or paying fees.