Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has had a particularly nasty piece of legislation sitting on his desk for more than a month now, gathering dust while he decides what to do with it. The bill is a shameless giveaway to the state’s abuse-plagued private probation industry and it presents the governor, who faces a re-election battle this year, with a real political conundrum. While it was put forward by legislators from his own party, its worst provisions are so embarrassing that the governor has publicly expressed his discomfort with them. But if he doesn’t veto the probation bill before the end of the day on April 29 – tomorrow – it becomes law.
Probation companies work in hundreds of courts across Georgia. They profit by extracting fees – we estimate at least $40 million a year – directly from probationers who face prison if they fail to pay up. Some of these companies enjoy far too much power and not nearly enough oversight, and abuses are rife. Some company probation officers charge exorbitant fees to people who can’t afford them and then secure the arrest of those who 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.
Instead of supporting desperately needed reforms, the legislature produced a bill that would make things considerably worse. The bill’s signature provision forbids public access to basic information about probation company operations – and the money they collect – that is currently accessible to Georgians through the state’s Open Records Act.
If the governor is looking for an excuse to do the right thing and veto this bill, he’s been given two very good ones in just the past few days. Last Friday, Georgia’s Department of Audits and Accounts published a 68-page performance audit of the probation business. Along with other problems, it describes widespread lapses in oversight and cases where probation companies have improperly sought arrest warrants against people, misallocated their payments, and inappropriately cracked down on those who can’t afford to pay. The report is an objective catalogue of important problems the legislature should have been trying to solve when it took this issue up.
If that isn’t enough, the Augusta Chronicle just revealed that in February 2014 the head of a large Georgia probation company wrote Governor Deal to express support for state Senator Jesse Stone’s candidacy for a state court judgeship. Three weeks later the bill’s worst provisions were added by the senate committee chaired by Senator Stone – the same provisions the governor himself later expressed discomfort with. Senator Stone insists these facts are unrelated and maybe they are. But it adds an extra whiff of scandal to a bill that is already a disaster.
In light of all this it would be hard for anyone to criticize the governor if he vetoed the bill, asked legislators to read the Department of Audits and Accounts’ findings, and told them to come back with a better bill next year. Since the performance audit hadn’t been published yet during the legislative session, casting things this way would also allow the lawmakers who voted for the bill to save a little bit of face even though they had ample reason to know better when they voted on this bill).
If Governor Deal does let this bill become law, let’s hope he hears about it from the people of Georgia.