Lower the Hurdles to Economic Opportunity for Probationers

By Benita M. Dodd



Once, Georgia’s most alarming criminal justice statistic was that one resident in 13 was under correctional supervision – imprisoned, jailed, on parole or on probation. Today, thanks to an ongoing series of criminal justice reforms, those numbers are shrinking.

The most alarming statistic, however, remains the record number of Georgians on probation. In July 2016, a total of 167,714 offenders were on probation, the state Department of Corrections reports. Last year, nearly 45,000 were sentenced to probation.

According to the National Institute of Corrections’ 2014 statistics, Georgia’s rate of 6,161 probationers per 100,000 residents is an astounding 321 percent higher than the national average, at 1,463 per 100,000. The next highest state is Rhode Island, with just 2,793 per 100,000; lowest is New Hampshire, with 368 probationers per 100,000 residents.

The average probation sentence in Georgia is six years. About one-third sentenced for property-related crimes and another third for drug-related crimes. More than 60 percent of those offenders are in their 20s and 30s; another 10 percent, in their teens.

Unless they are a danger to the public – in which case they deserve incarceration – these individuals should be restored to earning a productive living as quickly as possible after restitution and rehabilitation. Instead, many appear almost set up for failure, facing an ongoing burden – up to six years, on average – for their transgression, sometimes simply because they are unable to afford the fine.

Offenders find out the hard way that surcharges piled on top of fines can nearly double what they must pay: Elected officials have stacked fees on top of fines to pay for government programs such as driver’s education, indigent defense, officers’ training and victim assistance, among others.

On top of that come the fees. The typical probation monthly fee is around $40, whether they report in person or not. They must pay for any drug/alcohol tests administered; their jobs are often interrupted by reporting requirements, including classes they must pay for, from DUI classes to anger management.

“You must have a valid excuse for missing an appointment,’ Cobb County’s probation website notes; “Lack of transportation or money is not a valid excuse.” An excuse of illness requires a doctor’s note, problematic if one can’t afford a doctor, either.

Most probation supervision in Georgia is conducted by private companies. That does not relinquish responsibility for local jurisdictions to ensure that efficiencies aren’t derived through piggy-bank justice. The Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform has worked to make it more difficult to punish probationers who simply are unable to pay. Sadly, much like the reluctance of law enforcement agencies to end civil asset forfeiture, the fines paid in installments and reinforced by private probation companies have become an attractive financing option.

Initially, probation may seem an ideal alternative for offenders. They can continue to earn a living, pay their fine and keep or find a job while abiding by the conditions of probation. But probation can also destroy any chance for low-income individuals to step back from a financial cliff. If an offender’s driver’s license is suspended, for example, it means depending on others for transportation. Few employers would tolerate “probation appointment” as an excuse; none will keep a “troublesome” worker unable to get to work on time – or ever.

Conditions of probation can hinder the ability to take a job outside the county or state. One former offender who asked not to be named said he became so frustrated, that he deliberately violated the terms of his probation so that he could serve the rest of his sentence behind bars, “get it over with” and leave the state to take another job.

Georgia’s courts should mete out justice, not meet budgets. Even offenders who are no public safety risk must pay for their crimes. But they deserve a fighting chance in making restitution, rehabilitation and in becoming productive citizens. Alternatives such as weekend community service, compassionate reporting requirements and reasonable probation fees are all fair alternatives. Crippling them economically is an injustice to all Georgians.

Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the view of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (August 26, 2016). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.