by Michael Reynolds
Statues of Justice found in courthouses hold a balance scale in her left hand and a sword in her right. She is sometimes depicted wearing a blindfold representing equality of persons before the law. I have never seen her with a purse at her waist.
However, in Georgia she should display the corporate logos of Providence Probation Services, Supervision Services, Sentinel Offender Services, and 30 other private companies employed by 600 municipal courts to perform a public service at no cost to taxpayers.
“Corporate Justice” results from the belief that government’s responsibility for public good can be sold without damage to the integrity of society. In this case, the public service sold to private industry is supervision of misdemeanor probationers.
These are Georgians who have made a mistake, been unlucky, or, as all of us do, chosen badly. To keep their job they drove to work without a license or insurance. Perhaps they changed lanes without signaling or they did not have the money to fix a broken tail light. Some smoked marijuana or had too many beers.
If they are fortunate, they have money to pay the fine and walk away. For them, the fine is an annoyance, not the probable loss of employment, driving privileges, or descent into hopeless debt.
The unfortunate, who earn irregular, subsistence wages and cannot afford to pay a fine, are incarcerated until the next municipal court session. Deprived of liberty, this person of limited means has already been dealt a punishment far in excess of the citizen who was able to pay.
Probationers are remanded to the supervision of a private probation company. Fines and probation fees plus charges for drug tests, ankle monitors, and other non-court-ordered ‘services’ typically add up to thousands of dollars. Far more than most of these people can afford to pay.
Misdemeanor probationers live in a world of tricks, traps, increasing debt, and continuous threat of jail. The system, infected with the profit motive, is designed to generate cash for probation company owners and a revenue stream for courts, not help offenders successfully meet their probation obligations.
It started in the 1980s when incarceration became the preferred vehicle of public safety and enforcement. The United States has the highest incarcerated population in the world, and Georgia prisons are weighing heavily on the state budget.
At the same time, the anti-tax movement strengthened and citizens decided it was time to stop paying taxes. Consequently, city and county commissions struggled with inadequate revenue.
Identifying a large untapped government trough in Georgia, former state corrections officials established private probation companies. They pitched cities “increased revenue at no cost to taxpayers.”
Local officials rapidly adopted the probation privatization strategy. They did not consider how increasing dependence of local judicial systems on cash from private companies would corrode impartial justice and public trust.
Thirty four private probation companies supervised 349,000 misdemeanors and traffic tickets returning $200 million in fines to counties between 2011-2013, according to Rhonda Cook’s investigative series on debtors’ prison in Georgia published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Georgia legislators obligingly passed a law exempting private probation company books from public accountability; no one knows how much they collect in fines and fees. We do know that Sentinel Offender Services, one of the largest, took in $1.8 million in the month of June 2012.
In 2012, Georgia had the highest rate of probationers in the nation, 6,192 persons per 100,000 adults — three times the national average. According to Sarah Geraghty, senior attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia’s excessive population of petty offenders on probation is a direct result of the use of private probation companies.
These companies maximize profits for themselves by keeping as many petty offenders on probation as long as possible to collect as much as possible in supervision fees and charges.
As one of our local judges said to me recently, “…there’s not much probation management aimed at helping a person; it’s about collecting the money.”
This scheme is not costless to our community. Its expense is both immediate and cumulative.
Responding to complaints from citizens and law enforcement, the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts undertook a two-year investigation of the private probation system. They uncovered non-existent or inadequate financial controls and reports as well as compromised separation of powers between local judicial departments.
Last spring Governor Deal signed legislation designed to correct the worst abuses of the private probation system. That is good, but it will not restore integrity and public trust. When profit infects governmental institutions that must operate impartially to protect the public, private interest will find a way to disguise or hide the damage it does.
On Wednesday the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a lawsuit in White County on behalf of probationers Rita Sanders Luse and Marianne Ligocki against Sentinel Offender Services, LLC and probation officer, Stacy McDowell-Black.
The suit charges non-court ordered drug tests at probationers’ expense were forced on the two grandmothers. Additionally, Sentinel and its probation officer regularly coerced payments with the threat of immediate incarceration at the discretion of the probation officer. Both charges are violations of the Constitution, the Georgia Constitution, and Georgia law.
Elimination of private probation in Georgia is the only safeguard against corroded justice for Georgia’s citizens.
Michael Reynolds, a Rome resident retired from Georgia Tech, is a graduate of the School of Theology at Boston University. He writes for the website MOVE GEORGIA FORWARD and may be reached at MoveGeorgiaForward@gmail.com.