As with the first newsletter in this section of the website, nondisclosure precludes me from naming the client or showing the actual newsletter, but here are a couple of stories I wrote for a law firm’s newsletter I helped produce:
IMPETUS GROWING FOR REFORM OF GEORGIA MISDEMEANOR PROBATION SYSTEM
The state of Georgia has one of the highest incarceration rates in the U.S., with an estimated 1,074 per every 100,000 people in Georgia under lock up in state, federal or county correctional facilities as of 2013. More shocking might be the state’s rate of overall correctional system control, with one out of every 13 Georgia adults subject to incarceration, parole or probation.
Think about that the next time you’re getting a morning coffee at McDonald’s or Starbucks, as one or two of your fellow customers and/or service staff is likely under supervision by the state’s criminal justice system. That’s not to say that the person in line next to you might be a criminal, or necessarily under control by the state. More likely that person is on probation for a traffic infraction or minor misdemeanor, and is under the control of a private, for-profit probation service working for the state.
In fact, approximately 500,000 of your fellow Georgia citizens are on probation, the vast majority of whom are being supervised by private probation companies that earn significant fees for their services to the state. Georgia leads the nation in the number of its citizens on probation, and its rate of citizens on probation is more than four times the national average.
Probation in Georgia is a revenue-generating machine, with fines and surcharges adding up to about $125 million per year, and private probation companies earning millions more from the “supervision fees” that they keep. In many cases surcharges and supervision fees add up to more than the original cost of the misdemeanor fine. While probation has long been used as an alternative to jail time for minor criminal offenses, it is also used by courts to “supervise” people who cannot immediately pay court-ordered fines, whether imposed for misdemeanor crimes or minor traffic offenses.
The current probation system evolved more than 20 years ago when the Georgia General Assembly gave local courts the option of using private companies to supervise probation. In 2000 the impetus for using private probation companies was enhanced when the legislature mandated that the state would no longer supervise misdemeanor probation. Thus, local courts had to either set up their own probation offices or hire a private company.
Backlash against Georgia’s probation system has been growing, with 2014 serving as a pivotal year for addressing what many in the state consider an abusive system that gouges the poor.
Last month the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that private probation companies can manage misdemeanor probationers, but that the companies cannot extend the sentences of those on probation. In Sentinel Offender Svcs., LLC v. Glover et al. the Court ruled that the use of private probation services did not deprive probationers of due process of law, but ruled that the companies could not use the Statewide Probation Act to extend probation sentences of misdemeanor offenders. The Court also upheld the right of private probation offices to use electronic monitoring devices on probationers as long as such use was mandated by the court as part of the probationer’s sentence.
The ruling follows Gov. Nathan Deal’s April veto of HB 837, which would have expanded the power of private probation companies. Among the bill’s provisions were the allowance of electronic monitoring–along with their exorbitant fees–for misdemeanors and minor traffic offences, and the exemption of public disclosure of private probation company revenues and other public information.
The ruling also follows a state audit that reported widespread problems with the state’s misdemeanor probation system, alleging abusive practices by probation officers, excessive reporting requirements, questionable fine collection methods, and lack of court oversight. The governor alluded to the audit when vetoing HB 837, and has asked the state’s Criminal Justice Reform Council to study the probation system and recommend changes.
The Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) calls Georgia’s misdemeanor probation system “broken,” noting that it “prioritizes money collection over public safety and rehabilitation.” connect with Steve Bright.
We at XXXX Law agree, and support efforts by SCHR, Gov. Deal and others to reform the system.
GEORGIA’S “SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE” TOO BIG, AND SHOULD BE RUPTURED
The nationwide trend of criminalizing in-school misbehavior has been vigorously adopted by Georgia’s school systems. While a school yard fight used to generally result in detention, today the young pugilists will likely face juvenile charges of assault as well. Being disruptive in class was usually treated with detention 20 years ago, but now can also lead to a referral to juvenile court for disorderly conduct. And the Fifth Amendment concept of double jeopardy does not apply as the student can be punished by both the school district and juvenile court system for the same offense.
You had best warn your teenage child to avoid participating in any senior pranks, such as a “food fight.” Nine students at Ola High School in McDonough, Georgia, were arrested in 2013 for their participation in a food fight in the school cafeteria. The original felony charge of “inciting a riot,” was reduced to “disruption of a public school,” and all of the students were reportedly expelled for the remainder of the school year.
If your grade school child is prone to temper tantrums, well, Creekside Elementary School in Milldegeville, Georgia, broke new ground in criminalizing in-school misbehavior when they called in the police to arrest six-year-old Salacia Johnson for her tantrum. The officers, following procedure, reportedly handcuffed the kindergartener upon her arrest and held her in a jail cell until her parents came to pick her up.
Of course, Georgia’s school systems don’t have anything over Mississippi’s–In Meridian, students are subject to juvenile court referrals for dress code violations.
Examples such as those above, and the belief that minority students tend to be disproportionately affected by the trend, have resulted in a backlash to the criminalization of in-school misbehavior, known by opponents as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
The Advancement Project, a national innovative civil rights law, policy and communications “action tank,” has been leading the fight against the trend for more than 10 years now. The organization’s co-director, Judith Browne Dianis, succinctly describes the trend by noting, “Adults are treating young people like criminals, and are responding to typical student behaviour that has no baring on safety with discipline that defies common sense–pushing and shoving in the schoolyard is now battery, and talking back is now disorderly conduct.”
More locally, Judge Steven Teske, of Georgia’s Clayton County Juvenile Court, noticed that school-related juvenile court referrals to his court jumped more than 1,000 percent in the early 2000s, with the majority of new cases involving misdemeanor infractions relating to school yard fights, disorderly conduct and disruptive behavior. Meanwhile, the judge noticed that the number of serious juvenile crimes during this time period increased, while the graduation rate decreased.
In speaking before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 2012, Judge Teske said that it was “frustrating for me as a judge to see the effectiveness of the prosecutor and probation officer weakened by my court system being inundated with low risk cases that consumed the court docket and pushed kids towards probation–kids who made adults mad versus those that scare us.”
Judge Teske has helped reduce the number of students referred to Clayton County Juvenile Court from the school system by 83 percent since the mid-2000s through his proactive work with school officials and the police to change the practices that were leading to so many referrals.
The Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice is also working to implement changes in school and juvenile justice policies that would reduce the intersection of school discipline and the juvenile court system. The center has published a highly informative guide for parents, which can help them and their children navigate through today’s school disciplinary process in Georgia. The guide–“When My Child is Disciplined at School: A Guide for Families”–can be accessed at: http://www.gaappleseed.org/docs/schooldiscipline.pdf.
School disciplinary action has become quite complex in the past 20 years, and its ramifications for a child’s future can be significant, especially if the action involves the filing of a juvenile complaint. Thus, it is important for parents to become involved with the process as quickly as possible, and, if the action involves a juvenile complaint, consider consulting an attorney who specializes in juvenile law.