2 Investigates: Private probation firms costing taxpayers

by: Erin Coleman Updated:

Several probation companies that operate in Georgia recently gained national attention for the mounting lawsuits against them.

ATLANTA - Several probation companies that operate in Georgia recently gained national attention for the mounting lawsuits against them.

After seeing them, Channel 2 Action News launched their own investigation into the companies.

Private probation accounts for about 40 percent of all probation in the state.

Channel 2's Erin Coleman looked into the problems with the system and spoke with attorneys who said taxpayers are actually the ones losing out.

Attorneys who are now suing some of these private companies said more people are ending up in jail for minor offense like shoplifting, running a stop sign or driving on a suspended license.

They told Coleman that taxpayers are the ones who end up paying for it.

"I did about 13 days in there," said Hills McGee, a disabled veteran arrested four years ago for being drunk in public and thrown in jail for 13 days after he couldn't' pay his probation fee of $180 to his privately owned probation company.

McGee's attorney, John Bell, said he is like so many others who end up in jail for minor infractions because they can't pay a debt.

"The only focus appears to be how can we make him pay some money, even if it means locking him up at a far greater cost than the money he owed," Bell said.

Bell told Coleman that taxpayers are the ones who are paying for it. Bell has taken McGee's case all the way to Federal Court.

"All the incentives are backwards," Bell said.

Sandy Springs Judge James Anderson III said in his view, private probation works well.

"I will not revoke probation because someone cannot pay a fee, ever," Anderson said.

When Sandy Springs started up, Anderson said they contracted out most of their services, including probation.

"As long as it is run in an ethical manner, I have no problems with it whatsoever," Anderson said.

Bell argues many companies aren't operating ethically.

Channel 2 Action News filed an open records request and received hundreds of complaints filed against private probation companies.

"It was horrible," said Tomoria Wells.

Wells spent 18 days in a Ware County Jail for stealing a $20 outfit from JC Penney. Her total bill from her private probation company was more than $1,300. Much of that bill was for supervision fees, just like in McGee's case.

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"He spent 13 nights in our county jail for failure to pay their fee of $180. Those 13 nights probably cost Richmond county close to $1,000," Bell said.

"I think you have a potential conflict because it's a for-profit business. That's how they make their money is off the supervision fees," said Dale Allen, who used to work for a private probation company.

Allen is now the chief probation officer in Athens-Clarke County. After judges ordered an audit in 2007, the county switched from private probation back to government probation and hired Allen to run it.

"They wanted accountability," Allen said.

"Because they were unhappy?" Coleman asked.

"They were unhappy. Judges don't care about money," Allen said.

Allen said he is saving money by offering more services to help probationers without throwing them in jail.

"Saved this county $700,000 in jail costs," Allen said. "We can't afford to keep putting people in jail, it's not working."

Coleman contacted several private probation companies, all of them either did not respond or declined to comment on our story.

Coleman found some counties that apparently liked the system but did not like the company they had. They switched from one company to another.