I had opined several months ago that one of the most offensive parts of Georgia's criminal justice system has been the delegation of the important government function of supervising people on probation to private companies. As I argued, the goal of a profit-seeking company is completely inconsistent with the purpose of having someone meet certain conditions of probation. In my Perspective On Private Probation Companies in Georgia, I argued that the goal of maximizing profits put an undue hardship on the poor and created unequal and unfair outcomes in court.
The wealthy are able to pay their fines in full and do not suffer the hardship of appearing for probation visits or paying probation supervision fees. They are also not subjected to random alcohol and drug testing that could result in their probation being revoked.
Additionally, I argued that for people who needed to perform public service or attend counseling classes, private probation is an ineffective enforcement mechanism because the primary goal of the private probation company is financial, and as a result, the societal interest in correcting the probationer's behavior is superseded by the probation servicing company's goal of collecting their monthly fee.
In fact, one private probation company with which I have recently had contact attempted to force the pre-collecton of probation-serving fees for a client who was allowed to be on non-reporting probation upon the completion of the terms of his sentence (the special conditions of probation). In effect, the company wanted a year's worth of supervision fees for a probationer they were no longer supervising.
Anecdotally, I knew about how private probation companies abused Georgia's citizens and my belief was completely verified by a new audit of private probation companies as reported in the AJC on April 25th. The audit showed what I already knew was true: private probation companies made the collection of their fees first and foremost over the collection of actual fines and the performance of other corrective measures designed to help people learn not to re-offend (commuity service, counseling etc).
My position that private probation companies abused the poor turned out to also be true. Indigent people were forced to pay fees and fines under threat of incarceration. This was true even though there is ample case and statutory law that says a person cannot have their probation violated for inability to pay. Rather, a judge must make findings of fact that considers a person's actual ability (or inability) to pay.
However, these companies use the threat of jail and actual incarceration to force people to pay fine and fees that legally should be waived or at least reduced. As stated in my opinion piece in January, it is time for lawyers to object to having the poor abused by the misdemeanor court system.
Think of it this way: what private company would not love to have the power and authority of government to force 'customers' to pay them money under the threat of going to jail? What private company would not immediately abuse that power regardless of the public's interest? Why would we ever turn over the role of correcting the behavior of other citizens to a private company in the first place? It is absurd on its face. Regardless of tax dollars saved (the primary argument for private probation), it is an incorrect role of a private company to use government to advance its goals, period.
Our judges do not have the political courage to do the right thing, and we have to remind them that these are just misdemeanors. We should support the effort to de-criminalize Georgia's traffic code, and remove the authority of our judges to jail people for minor traffic offenses. Finally, we should force the judiciary to make legal findings of fact insofar as a person's ability to pay in every case. This will end what Georgia Traffic Ticket Attorneys see everyday: the court system being used to fund the general fund of our municipalities and counties.
The Following are Solutions to the Abuses We See in Georgia Traffic Courts:
We should get away from schedules of fines and stop using the police force and municipal courts as a source of funding for our cities. Schedules of fines are lists that pre-determine the fines before any evidence is heard. I cannot think of a single traffic court that does not have a list of "recommended fines," even though Georgia case law strictly forbids "mechanical sentencing formula or policy." See Wilcox v. State, 257 Ga. App. 519 (2002). The Court in Wilcox held that such policies amounted to an illegal "abdication of judicial responsibility." In effect, Georgia judges must exercise discretion, and having all the fines and fees pre-printed and pre-decided is a violation of our laws.
All municipal courts should be forced to run as close to revenue-neutral as possible. This would eliminate the profit-seeking mentality we see in our court system. If a city exists for the sole purpose of collecting traffic fines, it should be forcibly unincorporated. If a panel of three Superior Court judges find by clear and convincing evidence that a city exists solely for the collection of traffic ticket fines, the city should cease to exist. The entire city would then be disbanded and all of its functions would be returned to the county and elected government. This municipal "death penalty" would serve as a real deterrent to the abuses I see daily.
Our Georgia Traffic Ticket Lawyers will continue to fight for our clients and will also continue to speak out when we see clear abuses of power. It is time to make some real changes in Georgia and bring our state out of the 19th Century and into the 21st Century. I detest bullies and these companies bully and abuse people. This must end.