Georgia Supreme Court Rules That Private Companies Can Supervise People on Misdemeanor Probation

Posted by Richard Lawson | Nov 26, 2014 | 2 Comments

Debtor's Prison in Georgia – a Sad Example of a Court System Running Amuck:

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled Monday that the law that allows private probation companies hired by Georgia counties to manage probationers is constitutional. The law was passed in 2000 by the Georgia Legislature and moved the supervision of probationers who committed misdemeanors from the Georgia Department of Corrections to the counties.  Some of Georgia's 159 counties then decided to contract with for-profit probation companies.

The case the Georgia Supreme Court was looking into was brought by 13 probationers who had committed misdemeanors in Richmond and Columbia counties.  They argued that Sentinel Offender Services and other private probation companies like it were requiring probationers to wear electronic monitoring devices and extending sentences past what the court had originally ordered.

The probationers argued that the law passed in 2000 allowed private probation company employees to act mainly as court officers while carrying out the mission of their employer.  They felt the state constitution was violated by offenders being deprived of due process and jailed if they could not pay their debts.

The group also believed that warrants obtained by Sentinel employees illegally lengthened sentences past what the court initially ordered, and court-ordered electronic monitoring requested by Sentinel was improper and only added to the company's profits.

The Supreme Court's opinion, in some instances, partly affirmed (and also partially reversed) the lower court ruling on the case.

The Court's decision said the privatization of probation services does not violate due process since probation supervision used to be a job that was carried out by state probation officers.

However, it goes on to say that it is up to the court to decide if the defendant gets probation and on what terms.  It is also the court's responsibility to figure out if a probationer can afford to make the required payments for probation and if not, what alternative punishments are available.

The Court's decision ruled that the law allows for electronic monitoring for misdemeanors, but not for lengthening sentences past what the court ordered.

To review, we needed the Georgia Supreme Court to rule that private probation companies cannot alter a person's sentence to benefit a private probation company financially.  REALLY?  We needed the Supreme Court to rule on this obvious legal principal?

The justices sent the case back to a lower court to decide if whether or not some probationers could have the right to get some of the fees paid returned to them because Sentinel was not authorized to collect them in the first place.

Here is the point I have made before and will make it again:

Of course, private probation companies abuse the poor.  All companies, to be successful, want to maximize profits.  However, maximizing profits is not the purpose of our country's (or state's) justice system.  Having private companies act as probation officers is inconsistent with the role of probation.  In effect, it completely comes down to money rather than deterrence and rehabilitation, which are the primary purposes of our justice system.

Many times people are unable to pay their misdemeanor fines on the day they appear in court.  This typically leads to them being put on probation until their fines are satisfied.  These fees are usually $40.00 to $50.00 a month.  Also, probationers often have to take time from work for probation officer visits, which also costs them money.  At those visits, they can be subjected to drug and alcohol tests at their expense.  If drug or alcohol abuse is detected, their probation may be revoked.  If they miss appointments with their probation officer, their probation may be revoked.  If they do not pay their fees, again, their probation may be revoked.

If misdemeanor probationers are arrested because they cannot pay, this becomes a burden to the taxpayer to house and care for them.  Most of the people who can afford to pay their fines and fees on their court date are not put on probation.  They also do not have to submit to drug and alcohol tests, or miss work to meet with a probation officer.  As a result, the poor pay more for the same traffic offenses and are exposed to greater potential incarceration.

Fines for misdemeanors should be income adjusted, and courts, not private probation companies should decide whether or not a person is able to pay.

Putting people in jail because they cannot pay is stupid and despicable.  How is this supposed to help “rehabilitate” someone?  The poor suffer and private probation companies are laughing all the way to the bank. Instead, they should have significant government oversight and should not be seen as a free source of revenue for counties.  We must treat the poor with respect and fairness.  NO ONE SHOULD GO TO JAIL OVER A STUPID TRAFFIC FINE, AND NO ONE SHOULD HAVE TO PAY A HIGHER FINE JUST BECAUSE THEY ARE POOR.

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Richard Lawson

Managing Partner at Lawson & Berry:


Jay Bee Reply

Posted Jan 06, 2015 at 08:41:00

Hi Richard, I have been scouring the internet regarding this ruling that was mentioned to me by an attorney. I cannot find any specific statements where this is only for private companies, etc. For example, Dekalb County uses state court probation. If someone violated a 3 year sentence by not reporting for a year, can the state court extend the sentence from 2015 to 2016, being the original sentence was was to expire in 2015? Some articles say that judges do not have the authority to now, but it doesn’t say whether its only for private probation cases. Also, this is for a new arrest, IS a misdemeanor, but a larger offense… Please advise.

Richard Lawson Reply

Posted Jan 06, 2015 at 11:29:27

On November 24, 2014, the Georgia Supreme Court issued an opinion, Sentinel Offender Services v. Glover, 2014 Ga. LEXIS 940 (2014) (Uncorrected and subject to revision by the Court), holding that Georgia law does not provide for the tolling of misdemeanor sentences. The court held that the statutory language of O.C.G.A. § 42-8-30.1 renders O.C.G.A. § 42-8-36 inapplicable to misdemeanor probation sentences.

There is some debate as to whether it only applies to private probation. That being said, if you have a probation violation you need to contact an attorney.

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