Georgia's Highest Court Limits Power Of Private Probation Industry

Nov 24, 2014

The Supreme Court of Georgia
Credit The Supreme Court of Georgia

Thousands of Georgians are currently serving probation for misdemeanor charges. They are checking in each week with their probation officers; some are wearing ankle monitors. They are also paying fees for the probation services.

Many times, the probation officers work for private companies, and the fees go to those corporations.

Today the Supreme Court of Georgia cracked down on one company that, with the blessing of local courts, has extended probationers’ sentences when they cannot pay the fees.

In a unanimous opinion, the court also affirmed the constitutionality of state courts using private contractors to administer probation for misdemeanor offenders and of courts imposing the use of ankle monitors on those offenders.

The high court’s ruling has private probation companies moving quickly to clarify their status in the counties where they work.

“We’re individually speaking with our judges, we’re conferring with county attorneys and the like,” says John Prescott, President of the Community Corrections Association of Georgia, the private probation industry’s lobbying group in the state. “It appears that the probation officers do not have the authority to request the tolling of a misdemeanor probation sentence,” Prescott told WABE, “which, of course, creates a gigantic obstacle for us because that’s a critical component of the supervision process.”

But some attorneys think private probation companies have been pushing the envelope for a while now, including WABE legal analyst Page Pate. “I do think it was time for someone, whether it’s the legislature or a court, to step in and say, you know ‘enough is enough,’” says pate. “You’ve squeezed as much money as you can out of these folks. And if we’re going to continue in this system, we need to have some guidelines and make sure it’s consistent with Georgia law.”

The ruling comes in a case against Sentinel Offender Services. The company extended the sentences of people who had committed misdemeanors in Columbia and Richmond Counties. Longer probation period meant more fees.

Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams does not consider that a viable solution. “If they couldn’t afford $130, why would we assume they can afford $270?” says Abrams. “I think that becomes usury, and that becomes anathema to and conflicts - at its base - with our core responsibilities as government.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling instructed the plaintiffs, misdemeanor offenders who had paid what they considered excessive fees to Sentinel, to go back to the trial court to try to recover those fees. There is a possibility this case will become a class action suit, which could mean Sentinel would have to pay back millions of dollars of probation fees.