Searching for cheaper and more efficient ways to conduct government business, legislators increasingly see contracting out government services as an attractive option. In a vacuum, this can seem like a great idea. But it can lead to some serious questions -- particularly when it comes to our criminal justice system.
On Tuesday, precariously close to the state's bill signing deadline, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal vetoed a poorly-conceived bill, HB 837, which would have strengthened private probation companies' position in his state. In Georgia, 80 percent of those who receive probation as punishment for misdemeanor offenses -- including offenses as minor as traffic infractions -- are supervised not by a state agency, but by private contractors. The bill would have allowed these private probation companies to shield details of their practices from public eyes, while still raking in millions from those they're meant to supervise. And it would have allowed judges to extend probation terms for years. This wouldn't be a problem if there weren't concerns that companies' questionable practices primarily focus on collecting fees from probationers instead of helping them complete their supervision terms and successfully reintegrate into society. But that is oftentimes the reality: and that's why Deal's veto was the right call.
Georgia is not alone in leaning on private probation companies to provide services that local governments can't provide. Because so many courts are cash-strapped, a growing number are contracting out supervision services to private companies that offer probation services for misdemeanor cases at no charge to the government. More than 1,000 court systems across at least 10 states are now using these private probation services, which make money by collecting fees from the probationers they supervise. In the state of Georgia, private probation companies reported more than $40 million in revenue last year from probationer fees. Today, private probation companies already supervise nearly 300,000 people a year convicted of misdemeanor crimes.
Private probation companies' priority is making a profit, which worries many who feel that the companies compromise public safety. Decades of research points to evidence that the quality of supervision may suffer if probation officers are hampered with increased caseloads without the training and resources they need. But many of these private probation companies burden their probation officers with excessively large caseloads that make it harder to provide adequate services. In other words, their goal isn't to provide the state quality probation services with meaningful contacts with probationers: It's to increase their revenue while oftentimes investing as little as feasible in doing the job they're contracted to do.
In a report issued last week, the Georgia Department of Audits recently found a high frequency of case management problems, including failure to impose general supervision standards, failure to respond to probationers who missed reporting dates, and cases in which people were required to continue paying probation fees after their probation terms expired. This is especially troublesome as probation sentences in Georgia average almost seven years -- twice as long as the national average.
"There are a lot of red flags that were raised in the audit," Deal said. "We need to revisit where the auditors made suggestions ... I think we can do a better job of that." State Representative Mark Hamilton, one of the bill's sponsors, recently wrote that, "If HB 837 does not become law, misdemeanor probation may no longer be enforceable, and we will have a disaster in our justice system." He argues that the Georgia court system will be thrown into "utter chaos" and taxpayers will be on the hook to foot the bill for crimes committed in Georgia.
Governor Deal wisely surmised that language in this bill shielding private probation companies from many of Georgia's public records disclosure laws was a bad idea. Those on probation who are supervised by private probation officers would have been permitted to request copies of their records every three months, but would have to shell out cash to the private companies after the first request, and under no circumstances would they have been allowed to view their case notes. These provisions would have made it harder to identify the companies' problematic practices -- and harder for probationers to seek justice if their lives were compromised as a result.
In 2011, Georgia's Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform suggested that more effort needed to be spent on studying the state's unique approach to supervising misdemeanor offenders in the community, including the financing and monitoring of private probation, to determine whether it meets the public safety needs of the state and whether it adheres to evidence-based practices. That is still a good idea. But at the very least, Governor Deal's veto will prevent Georgia's probation problems from getting even worse.
Update: A sentence detailing private probation company Sentinel Offender Services’ expenditures on lobbyists in Georgia has been removed from this post due to a change made to the original Atlanta Journal-Constitution article on which it was based.