Probation Audit Tips Scales, At Least For Now

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Probation Audit Tips Scales, At Least For Now

A recent audit of misdemeanor probation operations in the state of Georgia is making waves, and not only in terms of the battle against private probation. It apparently also had a part to play in Gov. Nathan Deal’s 11th-hour veto of House Bill 837, which would have kept operational information concerning private probation companies hidden from the public.

The audit was done by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts, and even those intimately involved with the Sentinel case here in Augusta were unaware the audit was being performed. However, the 73-page report confirms nearly all of the allegations that have been raised against Sentinel Offender Services.

Some of those allegations include seeking arrest warrants for probationers who have paid all their court fines, demanding fees for drug and alcohol testing that had not been ordered by the courts, using the threat of jail time to force indigent probationers to choose between paying monthly fees or buying food or other basic needs, paying themselves before paying the courts and poor record keeping.

Not only did the audit find similar examples of companies not having a valid contract like the issue that drove Sentinel from Columbia County, it found the whole process was far from transparent.

The audit report came up with approximately 50 examples of things needed to be fixed. Insiders report that the way the current law is written, tolling is not allowed in misdemeanor cases, which is a problem for State Court judges who want to make sure that offenders do what they’re supposed to do after sentencing. Had the Georgia Legislature created a tolling bill that did not reference the current pending legislation, one that didn’t have anything to do with the private probation industry and simply stated that State Court judges can toll misdemeanor cases, judges might be a little happier.

Georgia’s private probation woes are starting to get national and international exposure, with recent stories in the Guardian, the Economist and on NPR. How much that exposure may have combined with the critical audit, which Deal admitted gave him pause, we don’t know, but the bill was one of the last still on his desk when Tuesday’s deadline came.

What we do know, however, is that opposition to the bill found an unexpected champion. Jumping on the anti HB 837 bandwagon was the Augusta Chronicle editorial page. On Wednesday, April 23, after showing little interest in the plight of Sentinel’s probationers, the editorial stated, “There are few bills from the 2014 Georgia General Assembly that Gov. Deal should refuse to sign. House Bill 837 should be at the top of the list.”

One thing, though, is certain. The private probation industry lobbied heavily for the bill, and why not? Why wouldn’t they want to put even more layers between the public and the nuts and bolts of what they do?

Still, even without the bill, there is plenty favoring the private probation companies, not the least of which are allegations that the County and Municipal Probation Advisory Council (CMPAC), the state agency tasked with overseeing all the private probation companies in the state, is so underfunded that it can only reliably check on whether or not probation companies have insurance, are doing background checks and have their paperwork in order. As for having the time or manpower to investigate complaints, they apparently don’t stand a chance.

Though Deal’s veto is a small victory for opponents of private probation, there are plenty of battles still to come.

Deal issues veto statement

HB 837: House Bill 837 provides updates and certain expansions to the role of private companies in the administration of probation services in Georgia. There is language in this legislation that would exempt certain key information about private probation services from the Georgia Open Records Act. I favor more transparency over private probation services and therefore I am not in favor of this information being exempt from the Georgia Open Records Act. In addition, it is my understanding that the Supreme Court of Georgia has under its consideration an appeal that would address the role of private probation services and, while the current law pertaining to private probation services remains in effect, this legislation seeks to have a preemptive impact on any decision in that appeal. With these considerations in mind, I VETO House Bill 837.