The next time you’re getting a morning coffee at McDonald’s or Starbucks consider the fact that one or two of your fellow customers and/or service staff is likely under supervision by the state’s criminal justice system. More than likely that person is on probation for a traffic infraction or minor misdemeanor, and is under the control of a private, for-profit probation service working for the state.
In fact, approximately 500,000 of your fellow Georgia citizens are on probation, the vast majority of whom are being supervised by private probation companies that earn significant fees for their services to the state. Georgia leads the nation in the number of its citizens on probation, and its rate of citizens on probation is more than four times the national average.
In many cases surcharges and supervision fees add up to more than the original cost of the misdemeanor fine. While probation has long been used as an alternative to jail time for minor criminal offenses, it is also used by courts to “supervise” people who cannot immediately pay court-ordered fines, whether imposed for misdemeanor crimes or minor traffic offenses.
Backlash against Georgia’s probation system has been growing, with 2014 serving as a pivotal year for addressing what many in the state consider an abusive system that gouges the poor. Last month the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that private probation companies can manage misdemeanor probationers, but that the companies cannot extend the sentences of those on probation. The ruling follows Gov. Nathan Deal’s April veto of HB 837, which would have expanded the power of private probation companies. The governor has asked the Criminal Justice Reform Council to study the probation system and recommend changes.
As a defense attorney, probation has greatly benefited many of my clients and it can be an appropriate resolution for many cases. However, I have seen firsthand how unfortunate it can be when a client cannot pay a fine on the day they enter a plea to a particular charge, and are then placed on probation to pay off the fine. Typically, they must pay $40-44 per month just to be supervised on probation. Some judges allow community service in lieu of fines or for a portion of the fine, and this seems to be a step in the right direction.
The Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) calls Georgia’s misdemeanor probation system “broken,” noting that it “prioritizes money collection over public safety and rehabilitation.”