Gov. Deal May Veto Bill Expanding Private Probation, Debtors Prisons in Georgia
(APN) ATLANTA — HB 837, which would expand authority for private probation companies, was passed by the House (105 to 62) and Senate (35 to 17) and has been sent to the Governor awaiting his signature to become law.
Gov. Deal has until April 29 to sign or veto the law; if he does nothing, the bill becomes law by operation of law.
It was sponsored in the House by State Reps. Mark Hamilton (R-Cumming), Howard Maxwell (R-Dallas), Alan Powell (R-Hartwell), Jay Powell (R-Camilla), Rich Golick (R-Smyrna), and Mandi Ballinger (R-Canton); and in the Senate by State Sen. Hunter Hill (R- Smyrna).
Gov. Deal has stated publicly that he may veto the bill because of its lack of transparency that would keep secret how many people the private companies supervise and how much money they collect in fines.
The Governor’s Criminal Justice Reform Program tries to keep people out of prison, while this bill will allow for-profit private probation companies to put people back in jail, if they do not pay their fines.
The caption of HB 837 states, “A bill… to provide for the revocation, modification, and tolling of sentences under certain circumstances by county and municipal courts; to provide for the conditions; to provide for the assessment and collection of costs of probation; to revise certain standards for private corporations, private enterprises and private agencies who enter into written contracts for probation services; to change provisions relating to confidentiality of records…”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) see many problems with this bill. For example, impoverished probationers are being arrested simply because they do not have the money to pay the private probation fees.
For a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons, a 2010 ACLU report, describes how the profit motive in Georgia gave private companies a financial interest in extending probation terms in order to collect additional fees; and drove certain probation officers to engage in abuse and coercion to get payments from poor probationers, by threatening them with jail time and getting arrest warrants for those who miss debt payments.
It is a new form of the old “debtors prison” with those least able to pay their fines going back to jail.
In 1983, the Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that a court cannot send a probationer to jail simply for failing to pay a fine if he or she is too poor to pay it.
Human Rights Watch also has a report out, Profiting from Probation: America’s Offender-Funded Probation Industry. The report, based on more than 75 interviews with people in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, describes patterns of abuse and financial hardship inflicted by privatized probation. It shows how some private probation officers behave like abusive debt collectors.
Defendants, who are placed on probation and ordered to pay a growing number of fines and fees levied by local governments facing budget deficits–combined with additional fees charged by private probation companies–are increasingly being placed in debt and/or jail, reports Prison Legal News.
“With so many towns economically strapped there is growing pressure on the courts to bring in money rather than mete out justice,’ Lisa W. Borden, a partner with the Birmingham, Alabama law firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz., told Prison Legal News.
“The companies they hire are aggressive. Those arrested are not told about the right to counsel or asked whether they are indigent or offered an alternative to fines and jail. There are real constitutional issues at stake,” as reported in the Prison Legal News.
Several lawsuits have been filed against the Augusta area private probation company, Sentinel Offender Service. There are other lawsuits filed in other states challenging private probation companies, which operate in twenty states.