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Last month in Atlanta, I met with key Georgia legislators from both parties to explain how the state’s out of control private probation industry has unleashed misery on the poor. Under the guise of providing “probation supervision,” some companies charge exorbitant fees to people who can’t afford them and then secure the arrest of those whose fall behind on payments. Many of the victims are only guilty of minor traffic offenses – people who would not be on probation at all if they had the money to pay down all of their fines and court costs at one go. The probation business is active in at least a dozen US states and is plagued by problems everywhere, but Georgia is its biggest hub with more than 250,000 cases assigned to private companies every year.

All of the legislators I met with seemed to understand. They said that they understood the need for reform, for greater transparency, and for an end to the perverse incentives that drive too many industry players to embrace abusive practices. Yet after a concerted lobbying effort by the probation industry and some judges, the legislature now seems poised to pass legislation that would only help entrench the lack of accountability the industry enjoys today.

The probation bill now awaiting passage by the Georgia legislature – originally intended as a narrow reaction to litigation involving a leading probation company in Richmond County – was never going to add up to the kind of fundamental reform the industry needs. But there was – and still is – an opportunity to at least include a handful of important, common sense reforms alongside favors it would offer up to the probation industry.

Most obviously, we and other advocates argue that the bill should be amended to require companies to publicly disclose how much they collect from probationers in fees each year. As of now there is no public official in Georgia – including the lawmakers themselves – who has any idea how much these companies collect from probationers in fees, let alone whether that figure can be described as fair.

It is hard to imagine any kind of coherent argument against this proposal. Yet the current draft bill not only fails to embrace the idea, but would amend the law to explicitly bar Georgia taxpayers, or anyone else, from obtaining that information under the state’s Open Records Act.

In addition, we’ve pushed for other straightforward reforms that could be accomplished by amending the current bill – barring courts from giving probation companies the power to determine when people are too poor to pay their fees, and putting some kind of rational cap on company fees in cases that are solely about debt collection. None of these common sense reforms have made it into the current version of the bill.

If passed as is, the bill would be a shameful giveaway to an industry that is in urgent need of reform, oversight, and transparency. The victims will be the lawmakers’ own constituents. It’s not too late to fix all this, but time is running very short.   


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