Broken system, oppressive monitors

9th May, 2014
Atlanta Journal Constitution
Stacey Abrams

In courts around Georgia, people who are charged with misdemeanors and cannot pay their fines that day in court are placed on probation, most under the supervision of for-profit companies until they pay their fines. On probation, they must pay these companies substantial monthly “supervision fees” that may double the amount a person of means would pay for the same offense.

Private companies now supervise about 80 percent of all people on probation for misdemeanors in Georgia. Under the leadership of the private probation industry, Georgia has the highest rate of people on probation of any state in the country. Probation is preferable to debtor’s prisons, but the modern alternative is not too far removed.

Gov. Nathan Deal is to be commended for vetoing House Bill 837. This bill, passed with the support of the powerful private probation lobby, would have expanded the reach of private probation even further while shielding the industry from public scrutiny.

Had it become law, the bill would have permitted private companies to require electronic monitoring for misdemeanor and traffic offenses such as driving without a license, failure to stop at a stop sign, or possession of a small amount of marijuana.

Private companies prefer electronic monitoring because it generates huge profits. Companies routinely charge over $2,000 per year for such monitoring in misdemeanor cases. This is in addition to criminal fines, probation fees and surcharges. People with limited incomes cannot afford such costs and often face probation revocation and jail when they cannot pay.

HB 837 would have allowed private probation companies to charge usury fees and then to get probationers’ sentences “tolled,” or extended, if they had not finished paying probation fees.

As the governor correctly recognized, the private probation bill also had significant transparency problems. Rather than place probation companies in the sunlight, HB 837 would have intentionally blocked members of the public and the media from being able to find out how much money the companies are charging citizens. It also exempted other information from public disclosure, such as the number of offenders under supervision and the number of warrants issued.

The purpose of this secrecy was puzzling, as it was in addition to current law, which already makes confidential “[a]ll reports, files, records, and papers of whatever kind relative to the supervision of probationers by a private corporation… .”

The timing of these provisions also bear scrutiny. After the House adopted several amendments that would have provided citizens with protection from high fees, the Georgia Senate added the disturbing transparency language. The provisions clearly obscured the fact that private probation companies often keep indigent people on probation by paying themselves first, before applying probationers’ payments toward their criminal fines.

In a recent example, Augusta resident Marietta Conner owed $140 on a traffic ticket for failure to yield to a pedestrian in the cross walk. When she made a $20 payment, Sentinel Offender Services Inc. took $10 for itself, and applied only $1 to her fine. When Ms. Conner paid $60, Sentinel took $30, and applied only $21 to the fine. Ms. Conner, whose sole income is her Social Security check, was caught in a cycle in which she could not pay off her fine before the next month’s fee was added. Then the company threatened her with jail for nonpayment.

The misdemeanor probation system in Georgia is broken. It prioritizes money collection over public safety and rehabilitation. Last month, the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts released a blistering critique of misdemeanor probation and offered suggestions for how to improve it.

We would be wise to implement the department’s recommendations going forward.

Stacey Abrams is Georgia House Minority leader.