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Staff Editorials

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.

Are we our cells?

    For a U.S. Supreme Court that has notoriously been reluctant to accept any Constitutional view that didn’t originate in the 1700s, their recent ruling on cell phone privacy is startling (and somewhat hypocritical).
    The justices last week essentially ruled that cell phones deserve higher protection during police searches of suspects than anything else a modern American owns. In essence the justices recognized that with a vast majority of Americans their cell phone is their personality encapsulated in a small device.
    For a body of people whose average age is 68 years old and likely not Snapchatting selfies of themselves in their robes, the justices showed a pretty keen understanding of how cell phones are much more than something to make a call on.
    “They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers,” Chief Justice John Roberts explained during the hearing.
    In their ruling, which protected cells from preliminary searches without warrants, the justices noted, “Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse. An Internet search and browsing history, for example, can be found on an Internet-enabled phone and could reveal an individual’s private interests or concerns — perhaps a search for certain symptoms of disease, coupled with frequent visits to WebMD.”
    Apparently at least one justice uses a cell phone app for exercise as the discussion at the high court included a query of whether information recording the number of steps someone had taken that day should be protected and, if not, how handy it would be to an investigator trying to determine where a suspect might have gone prior to being handcuffed.
    The basis of what the Supreme Court took up concerned two different challenges to searches of information held on cell phones. One case originated in Boston and showed a stash of drugs on a photo taken by someone arrested for something else. The other case, from San Diego, involved a cell phone that contained  photos and text message accounts of gang activity, including a shooting.
    Police officers are allowed to search anything in a pocket, including going through a wallet when making an arrest, but the court was adamant that cell phones are off limits, -- even though lawyers for the Obama administration presented some reasonable arguments, such as the possibility that information on the cell might alert officers to an accomplice in the area or a related threat.
   The justices didn’t give an inch in protecting the privacy of our mobile devices from police. (The NSA will be a later story. Nothing regarding federal efforts has been brought before the court.)
   “Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life. The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple — get a warrant,” the chief justice wrote.
    It is interesting to see such a senior group recognize the pervasiveness of the cell phone. They are right, just look around. Justice Roberts even posed what might be humor in a Supreme Court setting by noting that cell phones are so widely used, “The proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they [cell phones] were an important feature of human anatomy."
    We applaud the court taking a stand on privacy, but it is troubling that what they say is so accurate -- our cell phones literally do define us. Or in the words of Justice Elena Kagan, “Most people now do carry their lives on cell phones.”

With latest Middle East crisis, it’s time to cut ties in region

    You can’t blame people who have missed the latest news out of Iraq and Syria; as a nation we are  tired of bad news from the Islamic world. But the change now unfolding is extraordinary – extraordinarily bad, including an unconfirmed report Monday that 1,700 Iraqi security forces had been executed.
    The chaos and violence is from a militant group of Sunni Muslims based on the border of Syria and Iraq that have essentially pledged to take over both countries, unite it all as a caliphate (Islamic country).
    The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is succeeding with their troops already taking over or threatening key Iraq cities like Mosul and Falluja that many of us may remember from the U.S. military action there. Reports on national news say the Iraqi regular soldiers are fleeing in the face of better-trained and better-equipped ISIS invaders.
    In Syria, the group has also been successful at carrying out a strategy for takeover that was masked largely by the regular violence there – who noticed a few more militant attacks? In Syria, they have beat other rebel groups for control of territory where the government has been forced out.
    Like everything in the Middle East, religion plays a huge role in this insurgency. ISIS is a vocal proponent of the Sunni branch of Islam and considers the followers of Shia Islam as their number one enemy. The area they have quickly conquered in Iraq was once called the Sunni triangle when U.S. forces were there and the fighting was intense. Baghdad and the area of the country to its south is mostly Shia and it is expected that ISIS will meet stiff opposition once they try to move south of the capital.
    The government in Baghdad has asked the U.S. to defend them and an aircraft carrier and support ships are off the coast. In an odd combination, the Shia government in Baghdad also called upon neighboring Shia-led Iran to help with the Sunni threat.
    Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, has consistently elevated Shiites for government posts and pushed Sunnis to the side. This militant opposition is a problem that was created by the ruling government in Baghdad and it should be remembered a ruling party that never wanted the U.S. there to begin with and was anxious for us to leave. They demurred when we suggested they allow us to handle their security and offered suggestions on managing a country. Perhaps President Obama should have that air craft carrier put in reverse?
    Another thought against any type of intervention is that in the Middle East, the national boundaries were imposed by European nations about a century ago with no regard for ethnic and cultural lines – “you people are now grouped with those people.”
   These divided peoples have been a source of discontent and violence ever since the arbitrary boundaries were created. Ideally the citizens there should set aside differences and work together for the future of their children and the region as a whole – let all the boats rise together on improvements to infrastructure, education and economy.  But there is no evidence the people there desire any cooperation -- they deal with ethnic tension through the use of guns and suicide bombers.
    Maybe we need to let them settle it, even if that means a lot of bloodshed there and innocent civilian casualties. While that seems a dire alternative, nothing else has worked for a century and just maintaining the status quo is also accepting the current levels of violence.
    Ultimately the Middle East is a problem area for the entire globe and may remain that way for some time. But, the latest problems are self-inflicted by corrupt and ineffective governments in Baghdad and Damascus. The U.S. intervention, unfortunately, didn’t solve any of the internal problems in Iraq and jumping back in won’t produce a new result.   

Kids, pets left in locked cars: A deadly summer mistake

    It’s hot outside.
    But it’s even hotter inside a car, even one with a cracked window. We’re talking broiling, furnace-like hot.
    Last week a Cobb County man was charged with the murder of his 22-month-old son after he left him strapped in a car seat inside a locked car for over nine hours. He went to work, apparently forgetting the child was there. The high temperature in Atlanta was 91 degrees on the fatal day. The horror that man will have to live with for the rest of his life is utterly unimaginable. Unfortunately, that father is not alone in his neglect.
    More than 500 children have died from heat stroke since 2000 because they were left in cars on warm days. Some have died because, as in last week’s case, a parent or caregiver “forgot” them, while others have died while their caregiver just ran inside a store for an errand.
    The “I’ll only be a minute” saying can be a fatal thought for a driver who leaves a child locked in a car while running a seemingly quick errand. Temperatures inside a car can reach as high as 130 to 140 degrees in a few hours. Human bodies, which want to stay around 98.6 degrees, can heat up quickly and once our core gets to 106 degrees, it’s a serious problem. And children’s bodies heat up at least three times faster than adults, research has shown.
    There are cases of children left in cars dying on days as cool as 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
    On a 90- degree day a car can become like an oven in a mere 10 minutes, reaching 109 degrees. After 20 minutes it can reach 119 degrees; 30 minutes, 124 degrees; and 60 minutes, 133 degrees - which is 43 degrees higher than the temperature outside the car. Even on a mild day, say 75 degrees, the temperature inside a car can reach 100 degrees in 10 minutes.
    We all know what it’s like to get inside a car that’s been sitting in the sun for a while. The air is stifling and the steering wheel is broiling hot. We experience this so often here in the South it’s hard to imagine how anyone could think a child could handle being left inside a car.   
    And children aren’t the only victims. Pets, especially dogs, are often left to swelter away while their owners run into the grocery store or bank. A pet’s life may not be as precious as a human life, but it’s still one of God’s creatures – a living, breathing being – and should be treated with respect and care. No one sets out to kill their pet by leaving them in a car, but too often owners think they are doing their animal a favor by taking it for a ride without thinking through your stops.
    Do not leave your pet in the car alone, on a sunny day or a cloud day. Leaving a window cracked does not make it safe. It’s just plain miserable for your pet.
    Children and pets should never be left alone in cars, regardless of whether it’s a sunny or cloudy day. You may think just because it’s overcast or you’ll “only be a minute” that it will be OK.
    It may not.

At airport-tech park, failing to plan is planning to fail

    In the first place, let’s be clear: From the World English Dictionary— “Bond –finance, a certificate of debt issued in order to raise funds. It carries a fixed rate of interest and is repayable with or without security at a specified future date.”
    So when the commissioners say they have a $3.9 million bond for the “horseshoe” portion of the airport, it means they have borrowed that amount. There is nothing fancy about a government saying bond, rather than loan, that absolves them of acknowledging the debt.
    The county has had this aviation-tech park bond for a decade, during which time they have paid $1.3 million in interest ($11,000 per month). They have paid back none of the $3.9 million principal, nor have they generated a dime of revenue.
     The county intends to refinance its debt so they can keep paying favorable terms to the bank. If the next decade is like the past, we are looking at a potential $2.6 million spent on interest on a $3.9 million debt.
    There is also hope the federal government will give $1 million to the county to pay down this debt. Apparently none of our financially conservative Republicans in office are the least bit squeamish about taking federal funds. We’ll help Rush Limbaugh and give him the lead, “And now the Obama administration is giving a $1 million in our tax dollars to an airport business park, where there aren’t any businesses.”
    The need to re-finance isn’t the problem itself, it merely illustrates the problem: the absence of any defined business plan and a disgraceful lack of leadership going back the entire decade regarding the tech park in the horseshoe.   
    This lack of clear direction was most evident during a meeting years ago at the airport when Ed Marger, who served on an advisory committee, expressed hopes that a major shipping hub might locate there. During the same meeting then sole commissioner Rob Jones said they weren’t looking to see anything too large locate there. Neither Marger or Jones acknowledged the huge contradiction in the statements made during the same meeting, leaving the public wondering which path we were aiming for. Unfortunately neither sized business showed up. When you don’t know what you want, it’s hard to attract anything.
      The economy has been blamed for the poor airport prospects, but this doesn’t seem to be true. In Savannah, well-known luxury jet company Gulfstream is expanding. From  Savannah’s Channel 3 website, “Gulfstream Aerospace has had a significant and growing impact on Savannah.  In the last several years the aircraft manufacturer has not only brought thousands of manufacturing jobs to the area, but they’ve even helped create what many call the ‘aviation corridor.’”
    Other stories online showed a small airport in Louisiana breaking ground on their third corporate hangar on June 6th. Aviation is not as dead everywhere as our local officials would say.
    The idea of airport commerce still sounds as solid as when it was robustly touted by past commissioner Billy Newton. It was thought that owners of expensive aircrafts would use facilities here to refurbish and maintain their multi-million dollar planes and some companies would base them here, rather than in the crowded metro-area, generating a considerable amount of revenue.
    One local pilot who worked with corporate jets responded immediately in a Progress followup citing a list of reasons why this plan wouldn’t work here. He was widely denounced at the time, but a decade later the stage may be set for an I told you so.
   From the first, things didn't go well with the business side of the airport. The property purchase by commissioner Newton had a weird twist where a business partner of his became the seller right as the deal went down, though the price to the county was judged reasonable. Then work on the airport was constantly delayed. The same person who was one of the property sellers, Lee Mullins, had difficulty completing the work through his contracting firm.
    Construction has now been completed, which is a solid step forward. Even though it took years longer than expected this is something to move forward on.
    On the business-side nothing, literally nothing, has happened in a decade. The county is only marketing the project through word-of-mouth and, not surprising, the airport manager doesn't recall the last serious inquiry.
    We expect more from our commissioners and airport authority. Like a pilot and co-pilot, a clear flight plan is needed. Borrowing  more money and hoping someone wanting a corporate hangar will show up isn't a plan.
    After a decade, you might say it is time for a Plan B, but we never really had a Plan A.