In today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution there is an interesting investigative opinion piece on private probation companies in Georgia. The paper's position is that private probation companies are both an abuse of government delegation to private companies and unfair to those on misdemeanor probation. The position of the probation servicing companies is that they provide supervision to thousands of misdemeanor probationers at little cost to the the taxpayers. My position is that both sides lack the complete perspective to fairly discuss these issues.
To begin, there is no question the for-profit probation serving companies do supervise thousands of misdemeanor probationers without needing government employees as probation officers. Of course, government employees are still completely involved in the process through use of the court system and jail. However, even if the State or counties handled probation matters in misdemeanor probation, they would still need to use the court system and jail. The argument that through use of other government employees really is not well presented. People accused of crimes will use the court system, mostly against their will. I cannot see how private probation companies cost the system more in this regard.
In my opinion, the next argument that having private companies supervise probation results in unfair treatment of the poor has merit. The goal of any company is to maximize profits for it's shareholders. This goal has merit and should be the goal of any company. However, we do not turn over some quasi-governmental functions to private companies because those functions are inconsistent with a profit-seeking company. In my opinion probation supervision is about treating people in a just and fair manner. Maximizing the collection of fees is not the purpose of justice system.
Many times the poor or lower middle class cannot pay their traffic and misdemeanor fines on the court date and if they cannot, they are usually placed on probation until the fines are paid. Probation supervision fees usually are between $40-$50 a month. So, a person with a $250.00 fine can pay 100% "interest" on their fine if it takes them 5 months to pay their fine.
Over 5 months, the probationer will pay $500.00. In addition, they will be subject to 5 visits with a probation officer. Those visits take place during the working hours of most people who work hourly. This causes further cost through time off work. In addition, at those "visits" people on probation are subject to drug and alcohol testing at their own expense, and if drug or alcohol use is found, their probation can be revoked. If any meeting is missed, their probation can be revoked. If the fees are not paid, the probation can be revoked. This happens every day.
Revocation of probation means the probationer is taken into custody and held in jail at taxpayer expense until a hearing. The private probation company uses the power of government to enforce the payment of their fees. This fact alone should preclude the use of private companies. I personally see the incarceration of the poor every day in Georgia courts.
I also see the poor pay more for for their fines and fees everyday. My clients are not poor. I advise them to get their counseling and community service done before court. I also advise them to bring their fines and court costs to their court date. As a result, for many of my clients, they are not even placed on probation. This means that they actually pay less. This also does not expose them to revocation for testing positive for drug and/or alcohol use. This again means they do not have to miss work just to visit with the probation officer. The poor do not have the resources to pay their fines in full and the poor do not get the advice to complete the conditions of probation prior to court. They also may not have the resources to complete those matters, even if advised and many do not even have transportation to court and to probation.
As a society we have to decide whether we are going to treat the poor fairly. We have to decide whether the collection of fees and fines is the purpose of the justice system or is it the proportional treatment of people similarly charged. Are we as a society going to realize that fines should not be set in stone, but should be income adjusted. If Richard Lawson is fined $500 for a traffic ticket, a person living at the poverty level should have their fine and fees adjusted based on their income and resources and if not, have we have completely lost touch with the purpose of the justice system?
We lawyers who practice throughout Georgia are not without fault. We need to speak out when we see the poor incarcerated. We need to step up when people are denied public defenders in municipal courts because the city courts send the poor to state and superior court when someone asks for a lawyer to be appointed. We need to remember the poor when we are appointed or elected to the judiciary. Sometimes a friendly reminder that this is about justice to judges and prosecutors can help. Fine collection is not the purpose of the justice system.