Understanding the Probation Trap in Georgia
In Georgia, 1 out of every 17 people is on probation or parole. That’s a staggering figure, over 3 ½ times the national average. Despite years of successful criminal justice reforms spearheaded by former Governor Nathan Deal, each year 70 percent of people are admitted to Georgia’s prisons for violating parole or probation. For many of them, reincarceration is a consequences of technical (non-criminal) violations, such as missed appointments, a change of phone number, or traveling outside of a finite jurisdiction.
The ‘Probation Trap’ refers to community supervision, when it functions less like a reentry aide, and more like the Penrose staircase. The trap has become a well-known phenomenon across the country, considering 95,000 people are admitted to prisons each day due to technical violations. However, in Georgia, this trap is particularly insidious, due to the state’s lengthy probation sentences, burdensome supervision costs, and harsh criminal penalties for everyday behaviors.
“Every defense lawyer has been just fed up with somebody getting 10, 15, or 20 years’ probation,” according to David Botts, a member of the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform Council. “With sentences that long,” he adds, “there’s a lot of time to violate probation.”
It doesn’t help that Georgia’s criminal statutes are bound to produce a plethora of new offenders daily. The state has criminalized traffic violations and other minor offenses that most states treat as civil infractions. Misdemeanor crimes include, but are not limited to changing lanes without use of a turn signal, playing a car stereo too loudly, or failing to dim headlights. Misdemeanor offenses carry fines of up to $1,000 and jail time of up to one year.
In addition, Georgia often places individuals who are unable to pay their traffic tickets on probation as they work to pay down their debt. This type of probation referred to as “pay-only probation” carries with it court costs and supervision fees, even though no meaningful supervision occurs.
Because the cost of probation in Georgia is the responsibility of the probationer themselves, reentering Georgians struggle to find and retain employment with a criminal history, and face the additional challenge of paying all In addition to monthly supervision fees, the individual may also have to pay court costs, one-time fees, credit-card surcharge fees, testing fees, bail/bond fund fees, electronic monitoring costs, or any combination of these charges, and surcharges.
So why the high cost? With so many people on probation, Georgia can’t absorb the total cost of supervision. To offset the cost, they send more people to private probation than any other state, and now the private probation industry in Georgia is well over 40 million dollars.
The private probation companies deployed by the state have a history of abusing their powers as de-facto bondsmen. In many cases, Georgians have been forced to pay additional fees to private probation companies for GPS ankle monitors and alcohol and drug testing, even without a judge’s order. When poor people fall behind in their payments, they are threatened with the prospect of incarceration.
Nationally, over one-third of all people on probation make less than $10,000 per year — well below the federal poverty line. Another one-third earn less than $20,000 per year. For this income level, probation charges sincerely exacerbate precarious living situations. For felony probationers, the trap is particularly disheartening. Reentering Georgians are mostly low-income earners, and due to their records, they face tall barriers to gainful employment.
The problem with privatized probation is pretty straightforward: The goal of probation ought to be to get people off probation, out of state supervision and back to being productive members of society. Private probation companies make their money from people on probation. This means that every person they help move off of probation is one less paying “client.” The incentives are exactly backward.
According to the Southern Center for Human Rights, “the privatization of misdemeanor probation has allowed for-profit companies to act essentially as collection agencies with law enforcement authority.”
As long as probation sentences last lifetimes and include unreasonable fees and harsh punishments for failure to pay them, probation will continue to punish people just for being poor — and if the goal is to get people off of state supervision, that system clearly isn’t working.
To be clear, recent criminal justice reforms have put Georgia lightyears ahead of where it was, but the Georgia legislature must acknowledge that people on probation are mostly low-income and driving them further into poverty through monthly fees is cruel and counterproductive — some might even say, criminal.