Would Impose Transparency, Curb Abuse, Protect Rights of Poor

A bill passed today by Georgia’s House of Representatives includes important and far-reaching reforms of the state’s abuse-ridden for-profit probation industry, Human Rights Watch, the national American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia (ACLU of GA) said today.  The bill will next be considered by the state Senate.

House Bill 310’s provisions on private probation represent months of hard work by Governor Nathan Deal’s Criminal Justice Reform Council to address what its co-chair has called the “moral imperative” to deal with the “inequities and abuses” of the state’s for-profit probation industry.

On misdemeanor probation issues, the bill is a principled compromise that contains provisions to protect both the rights of minor offenders and the integrity of the state’s court system.  It includes important safeguards to curb debtors prisons—the illegal jailing of probationers who are simply too poor to pay fines and fees imposed for misdemeanor offenses.

Some 80 percent of all misdemeanor probationers in Georgia are reportedly under the supervision of private, for-profit companies. Instead of paying them with public money for their services, local governments and courts empower these firms to charge the probationers directly.

A 2014 Human Rights Watch report documented widespread abuses linked to the private probation industry in Georgia and in other states, many of them fueled by a profound lack of adequate state government oversight and regulation.  It also demonstrated that some courts use for-profit probation as a debt collection tool, with all costs billed to the debtor, at the expense of protecting poor people’s rights.

Earlier this year, the ACLU and ACLU of Georgia filed a federal lawsuit, Thompson v. DeKalb County, challenging such practices.  The suit was brought against the for-profit probation company Judicial Correction Services, Inc. and a local government for engaging in debt collection practices that caused the jailing of a black teenager who could not afford to pay $838 in traffic fines and fees in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment rights to counsel and to an indigency hearing. A state government audit in 2014 found widespread problems across the whole misdemeanor probation system and urged fundamental reforms.

Along with other positive changes, the bill would:

  • Provide enhanced guidance to courts on how to ensure that probationers are not  jailed for failing to pay court fines and company fees that they genuinely cannot afford.
  • Promote financial transparency by requiring for-profit probation companies to report the amount they extract from probationers in fees and to make that information publicly available upon request under Georgia’s Open Records Act. Currently probation companies keep these figures secret, including from public officials.
  • Cap the amount probation companies can charge people who are on probation purely because they need time to come up with the money to pay down fines and court costs. Currently, people in these “pay only” cases can wind up paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fees to their probation companies—even though probation companies perform no function in these cases beyond collecting probationers’ money every month.

If passed into law, these reforms could also serve as a model for other states where privatized for-profit misdemeanor probation is widespread. Most of those states, including Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, do not currently subject probation companies to any meaningful oversight or regulation at all.

Additional resources:

The Human Rights Watch report,Profiting from Probation: America’s “Offender-Funded” Probation Industry:

http://www.hrw.org/reports/2014/02/05/profiting-probation-0

ACLU,Thompson v. DeKalb County:

https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform-racial-justice/thompson-v-dekalb-county

Report of the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, February 2015:

http://gotsr.dcor.state.ga.us/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/2014-2015-GA-Council-on-Criminal-Justice-Reform.pdf

Georgia Department of Audits, Report on Misdemeanor Probation practices (April 23, 2014), available at:

http://www.audits.ga.gov/rsaAudits/viewDivisionCate.aud?divisionCate=divisionCategoryId&filterDivisionValue=3

Southern Center for Human Rights,Profiting from the Poor: A Report on Predatory Probation Companies in Georgia:

https://www.schr.org/files/profit_from_poor.pdf

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