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State court judges join legal fight over Georgia’s private probation

The Council for State Court Judges is stepping into a debate before the Georgia Supreme Court over private probation companies, arguing the companies provide essential services to courts around the state.

Despite complaints from probationers that the companies are operating illegally, the State Court judges argue the companies are essential to keep the state’s court system operating smoothly.

The Supreme Court has been asked to limit the services one probation company provides to probationers convicted of misdemeanors.

A ruling by Superior Court Judge Daniel Craig of the Augusta Judicial Circuit last September would prohibit Sentinel Offender Service from providing some services. Craig said the law doesn’t allow the private sector to do electronic monitoring or provide drug and alcohol testing or counseling. Sentinel, like other private probation companies, has provided those services in the past for people on probation for low-level crimes.

The State Court judges’ brief says Craig’s ruling could destroy the thriving private probation industry and create chaos in the lower-level courts. These courts depend on businesses like Sentinel Offender Services to supervise those on probation for such misdemeanors as illegally turning right on red, drunken driving and trespassing.

The appeal will be heard on Sept. 22 by the state supreme court.

“This order has had a chilling effect on sheriffs and State Court judges in counties that use private probation service providers,” according to the brief written by former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears on behalf of the Council of State Court Judges. “Many judges now fear that their sentencing orders and enforcement of arrest warrants will be redefined or limited.” The State Court Judges council disagrees that the company was operating beyond the law and further states in their filing earlier this week that if upheld Craig’s ruling would have negative consequences throughout the state.

According to the judges’ brief, a ruling by Craig “undermines and impedes the ability to make and enforce probation orders in misdemeanor cases.”

A national debate about private probation started last year after lawsuits were filed in east Georgia claiming that Sentinel, Georgia’s largest private probation provider, 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, an allegation that also has been made against some of the other 32 companies operating in Georgia.

While Craig’s order applies only to Sentinel’s operations in Richmond and Burke Counties, Sears wrote in the brief filed Monday the state court judges believe the ruling’s “impact goes far beyond the practices of Sentinel or any one private probation company.

“In fact, the superior court’s interpretation of (the private probation law) taken to its logical conclusion would prohibit private or in-house county probation departments from providing probation supervision services in any misdemeanor criminal court,” Sears wrote in the brief. The judges council is a state agency that provides training, sets policies for the judges and works with other branches of state government on their behalf.

The industry has thrived because of a change the 2000 Georgia Legislature made in the law shifting the responsibility for supervising misdemeanor probationers from the state to local courts. About 340,000 misdemeanor probationers are supervised by the the private sector in Georgia, which uses these companies more than any other state.

Soon, private probation became a $40 million-a-year industry that was cost-free to taxpayers because probationers took care of the costs with monthly supervision fees of $35 to $45 and anything extras they had to pay for electronic monitoring or drug or alcohol testing.