By Lisa Hagen
Georgia has the highest rate of people on probation in the country. That rate is nearly four times the national average.
After years of criminal justice reform, the state has seen its prison population drop, but the rate of people under state supervision has stayed stubbornly high. A bill that could get a vote in the Georgia House is aimed at changing that.
According to a report by Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, the state’s probation rate is 6,161 adults per every 100,000 residents.
Right now, there are about 19,000 people under state supervision just in Fulton County. They’re managed by 100 probation officers out of a compound on a lonely stretch of Sylvan Road in Southwest Atlanta.
“This is officer lane,” said Coordinating Chief Cory Beggs. “The office is open 8 to 4:30. But officers work all shifts. They’re out at night. They’re out in the mornings.”
He said that on average, each of his officers keeps track of more than 200 offenders (see photo below of list of active cases). These are people who may have to complete drug treatment programs, pay off restitution or do community service. Sometimes it just means calling in once a month.
“When you have a high number of cases on your caseload, quality supervision becomes more of a checklist. Have I done this, have I done that,” Beggs said. “We struggle with the balance of managing time and managing getting to the next place, going to court or managing half a dozen other things.”
Across Georgia, probation sentences are both very common and very long, according to the Council on Criminal Justice Reform report.
“Every defense lawyer has been just fed up with somebody getting 15 years probation or 20 years or 10 years,” said defense attorney David Botts, a member of the council. With sentences that long, he said, there’s a lot of time to violate probation.
“You could have somebody with a non-violent offense go five, six, seven years without doing anything and then get caught shoplifting or with a small amount of user drugs,” he said.
A judge can then decide to revoke probation and send an offender back to prison.
“And so it turns a minor thing into a major,” Botts said.
The council report estimates that close to 70 percent of people admitted to Georgia prisons have likely been revoked from parole or probation.
A new bill in the state Senate is trying to get people off probation faster. The council believes the reform could actually reduce the growth of the prison population by five percent (a little more than 2,600 adults) over the next five years.
The bill picks out more than 20 non-violent felonies, including shoplifting and low-level drug charges. And if, after three years, a person has stuck to the terms of their probation?
“Their probation officer would file a petition to the court for early termination,” said Marissa McCall Dodson, public policy director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which helped craft the bill.
Dodson said that technically, ending probation early is already possible, but almost no one does it. She said even if someone has money for a lawyer, many attorneys don’t even know this is an option. The bill would make that three-year review automatic.
“The point of that is to have a regular mechanism for people on probation to come before the court, when they have been in compliance, and get off of probation so they can lead more productive lives,” Dodson said.
The council’s report cites research that has found that people are most likely to reoffend within the first few years of probation.
The bill also makes it easier for judges to convert court fines into community service. It asks them to consider the finances of offenders when deciding how much they should pay.
Beggs said money is one of the main reasons he sees people violating their probation. They don’t have it, so they don’t report in.
“The fines on a drug case. It turns out to be $2,000 when everything’s all said and done,” Beggs said. “And when a person’s not working, that just takes money out of mouths, out of gas tanks, out of things that really need to happen.”
The Council on Criminal Justice Reform estimates reforms in the bill could save the state more than $7 million over the next five years by decreasing caseloads rather than hiring probation officers.
Beggs said he’s seen money issues turn two years of active probation into 10, tying up his officers for longer. Chasing after that money is something Beggs said he doesn’t really think contributes to public safety.
“You’ve got to figure out what probation’s all about. Is it the punishment piece or is it rehabilitation? If you’re going to put somebody in the community, it’s rehabilitation,” he said.
“I’m a citizen of Georgia. I’ve got two small kids going through school. Any dollar that I can divert from corrections and put into education or anywhere else other than corrections, I feel is a dollar well spent,” Beggs said.