Men and women in orange jumpsuits shuffled into the courtroom in Augusta, Georgia, their wrists and ankles bound by heavy shackles, one day in October 2012. Many had arrived there not because they had committed a new crime, but because they could not keep up with payments to the private probation company contracted to collect their court debt. Most of the crimes that started them on this road were small—traffic offenses like switched tags and driving without a license, most of which are misdemeanors in Georgia. But their punishment quickly ballooned after they did not keep up with payments, leading the poorest to be punished more heavily simply because they have less.
Now, a bill headed to Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s desk would give unprecedented new power to the private probation industry driving this statewide system. It’s an industry, say human rights advocates, that has made millions profiting off the state’s poorest residents.
Vigorous lobbying by the private probation industry helped shape the bill. Originally conceived as an attempt to clarify the state’s approach to private probation, the bill instead pumps new energy into the system, by, among other things, allowing judges to extend probation terms for years and forcing low-level offenders to pay the daily costs of electronic monitoring.
“This is not your run of the mill housekeeping bill,” said Kathryn Hamoudah of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which has long advocated for reform in the burgeoning industry. “It is a gift to the private probation companies, giving them unprecedented authority to act as law enforcement.”
Private probation in Georgia has been fraught from the start. In 2000, the state passed a bill eliminating county-run misdemeanor probation, opening the door for private probation companies to take their place. It also sent Bobby Whitworth, then chair of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, to jail for public corruption. He was convicted of accepting money from a private probation company in exchange for influencing the passage of the legislation.
For over a decade, the original Georgia law has permitted private companies to supervise between 260,000 and 300,000 people a year convicted of misdemeanor crimes, which in Georgia includes most traffic violations. Many end up on probation after convictions for relatively minor infractions—a speeding ticket or shoplifting. If they cannot pay their fine in full on their day in court, a judge may sentence them to probation with a private company, which collects the fine over time for a monthly fee—generally about $45 a month. This means the poorest residents can end up paying hundreds of extra dollars for their crime. A recent report from Human Rights Watch estimated companies in Georgia rake in $40 million in probation fees each year.
In 1983, the Supreme Court declared that it is unconstitutional to jail a probationer for failure to pay a fine without first inquiring into their ability to pay. But as we reported in “The Town that Turned Poverty Into a Prison Sentence,” state and local courts routinely lock up poor probationers because they cannot keep up with payments to the probation company or the court. In some cases, probationers can languish behind bars for weeks or months.