Sunday, June 28, 2009

Probation Madness in Athens

Great story in today's Banner Herald about the astounding use of probation here in Athens (and featuring a quote from yours truly) following the county's take over from private companies last fall.

People who are convicted of minor crimes in Clarke County are paying more fines and performing far more community service under a new government-run probation office.

County officials say the in-house probation service, which started up in September, is more effective than the old private contractors in holding criminals accountable.

Fines collected are up $50,000 a month since government probation officers took over 10 months ago, and the number of hours probationers spend picking up trash, feeding the homeless or performing other community service is up almost tenfold to about 9,000 a month, according to court records.

Those spikes are partly due to a steep increase in the number of misdemeanor offenders - those guilty of relatively minor offenses like drunken driving, marijuana possession or fighting. The new office is overseeing nearly 3,000 probationers, compared to between 2,200 and 2,600 for the private firms, Sentinel and Maximus. Those figures do not include about 500 people who are in pre-trial diversion at any given time.

I admit, when I spoke with the reporter on Friday afternoon, I was shocked at those numbers. Three thousand probationers, in a county of 100,000+ (maybe 75,000 of whom are adults)? That's incredible.

"It's staggering," Athens-Clarke Court Administrator T.J. BeMent said. "Much higher than we anticipated."

The number of cases caught court officials by surprise, in part because the private contractors kept poor records, BeMent said. He also cast doubt on the community service and fine-collection figures pre-dating Sept. 1, but said they've undoubtedly gone up since the county took over.

Part of that, of course, might be the increase in property crime we've had here in Athens during that time, but part of it is also a recognition that probation has become big business. And in recessionary economic times, what a better way to generate revenue for hard hit municipalities than by shaking down probationers. How much, you say (emphasis mine)?

Fines collected are up $50,000 a month since government probation officers took over 10 months ago....the probation service is projected to bring in almost $200,000 more than it spent this year.
I've seen some data showing that the "average" criminal who is put on probation will end up paying double, perhaps triple, the original amount of their fines by the time all the "probation fees" have been collected. A typical misdemeanor, for example, might generate a $500 fine and 12 months probation. At the end of that period, the probationer would have been pinched between $1,100 and $1,500, depending on the jurisdiction.

And given that the "average" criminal is lower income and disproportionately minority, isn't it nice to know we're balancing the budget on the backs of the poor?

As I note in the article, we don't have a lot of good data on privatized probation services versus government-run programs. Most of the research in privatization focuses on private prisons and jails. But we do know the profit-motive of a company basically defeats the purpose of probation, which is to reduce the number of people in the criminal justice system. No company exists to purposely go out of business.

Now, local governments are learning that it's better to expand the reach of misdemeanor probation and keep the money themselves. The article mentions serious offenses like DUI and drug charges, but what isn't mentioned is that we routinely put people on probation for things like MIP (minor in possession), traffic tickets, truancy and jaywalking. We'll put you on probation for almost anything.

The simple rule of thumb should be: does what the person is accused of rise to the level of jail time? If you wouldn't do jail time for your "crime", then you shouldn't be on probation. It's that simple. Anything else is mere "net-widening"; pulling more and more people into the system who clearly don't belong there.

And when even such "liberal" towns like Athens are raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year via probation, I would expect to see the numbers of probationers (4.3 million nationally at the end of '07) continue to soar.

Beats raising taxes, right?

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