ATLANTA - Opponents of Georgia's private probation system say companies supervising low-level offenders are earning untold amounts of money in fees while using law enforcement offices as collection agencies when they go unpaid.
More than a dozen lawsuits argue for state lawmakers to re-evaluate some of the companies' practices, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Sunday. The Georgia Supreme Court this year is expected to examine the fees and other expenses probation companies impose, which have led some low-level offenders back to jail because of nonpayment.
The newspaper reports 34 probation companies operating in Georgia have supervised nearly 349,000 low-level offenders in the past two years and have collected more than $200 million in fines and restitution.
The industry's supporters say the private companies are better equipped to deal with low-level offenders than local court systems. However, some of the lawsuits allege that private companies have forced defendants to pay for electronic monitoring, drug testing and services that were not court-ordered.
Some of the industry's opponents say the fees unfairly target the poor and can land defendants back in jail years after they thought they paid all fees associated with their cases.
Kathleen Hucks was stopped by a police officer on Memorial Day last year for a matter unrelated to the case she had been on probation for and was sent to jail when the officer saw that she had a warrant for an outstanding $156 payment to a probation company from more than four years ago.
The newspaper reports that Hucks paid a monthly supervision fee and paid for drug testing, although the court never ordered it as part of her probation. Hucks was sent to jail for 20 days because of the $156 debt.
"Georgia's gone back to being a debtor's prison state," said attorney John Bell, who is representing more than a dozen people who were sent to jail for nonpayment of supervision fees.
Critics of the industry have said supervision of probationers is based mostly on fees being paid and little else. In a report, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, Stephen Bright, said private companies do little to monitor probationers they're collecting money from.
"All they do is take the check or take the money order from this person. They don't provide any services," Bright said. "It's an absurd amount of money they take in. People are getting incredibly rich off these things."
The Private Probation Association of Georgia is the industry's trade group and representatives said in a statement that the companies "provide well-trained, highly regulated probation supervision." The organization says the companies also match probationers with professionals in several areas of counseling.
Co-owner of Georgia Probation Services, Tony Moreland, says the industry fills a need but is seen in a negative light.
"We have become the big, bad bogey man," he said.