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Private probation needs strict state oversight

    In a legislative session that didn’t generate much fire (outside of guns) a veto by Nathan Deal of HB837 allowing private probation companies to operate with even less oversight deserves applause.
    Deal recognized, following some unsavory news across the nation, a watchdog report and a report from the state’s Department of Audits, that private probation companies need higher levels of scrutiny, not less.
    In an era of high court costs and taxpayer resistance to most any cost, private probation sounds great when they use the phrase “offender funded” – meaning that those on probation must pay fees to cover their costs.
    In theory, this is great -- a private company takes over the duties of probation officers and sees that rehabilitation is handled efficiently (saving taxpayers) and with more compassion for those on probation (helping rehabilitation).
    But further scrutiny finds the private system is ripe for abuse – with multi-million dollar companies tacking on services for those they monitor and extending probation periods to take advantage of poor people while using the threat of re-incarceration to back them up. When those on probation are also the paying customers, there is a disincentive to either help them complete probation or to turn them in for an offense that would send them back to jail. Unreported drug test failures were found in  national checks on these companies.
    After realizing the potential pitfalls,  Pickens County’s judicial system wisely decided to use a county probation department that is supervised by the courts.
    Across the nation, abuse stories abound in private programs.
    In one instance highlighted by Human Rights Watch, a Georgia man was fined $200 for shoplifting a can of beer, but the private probation company socked him with monthly charges that were higher than his income – no way for him to ever get ahead.  Eventually he went back to jail hopelessly behind on thousands in probation company service charges.
    As in other instances, this misdemeanor offender was required to wear and billed for ankle cuff monitoring.
    The business of handling probation (mostly for municipal courts) is big business in Georgia with 80 percent of the people who receive probation being handled by up to three-dozen different companies. It was estimated, by Human Rights Watch, that private probation generated $40 million in revenue in the past year in Georgia.
   What is particularly galling are the people forced into the probation system only because they didn’t have the cash to pay an initial fine.
   People coming out of jail or sentenced to probation are convicted criminals who may need supervision, but they are also ripe for financial exploitation, which makes the slope leading to rehabilitation that much steeper.
    Ultimately, for the taxpayers, having these people back working, certainly not occupying an expensive prison cell because they couldn’t pay a probation company, is our best bet. Raiding these probationers meager savings under threat of jailing is not moral nor effective state policy.
    Re-jailing someone simply because they can not pay their fine not only harkens back to the old debtor prison, it is unconstitutional – a 1983 case that originated in Georgia found  someone can not be jailed just because they are too poor to pay their fine.
    Note, however, they can justly be jailed if they refuse to pay, or squander their money and don’t pay.   
    The idea behind the private probation is solid, but if the state lends their force of the courts to any private entity, they have a duty to be sure the power is not abused.              Better supervision of these programs is a must. Governor Deal noted this, saying when he issued the veto that the issues found by the audit, throw up “a lot of red flags.”    
    Convicted people need to pay their debt to society and cover the costs of their crime and punishment when possible. But no private company should be lent the authority of the courts to collect these debts without stringent oversight.

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