ATLANTA — Georgia's highest court ruled Monday that a state law allowing courts to contract with private probation companies to supervise misdemeanor offenders is constitutional but does not allow for additional requirements beyond what is imposed by the courts.
The Georgia Supreme Court was considering a case brought by a group of misdemeanor probationers in east Georgia who argued that Sentinel Offender Services and other private probation companies were illegally requiring electronic monitoring and extending sentences. The unanimous high court opinion partially affirmed and partially reversed lower-court rulings on the issue.
"We are pleased that the Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs' challenges to the constitutionality of the Private Probation Statute and trial courts' use of electronic monitoring to monitor probationers," James Ellington, a lawyer for Sentinel, said in an email. He added that they are still reviewing other parts of the decision.
Lawyers for the probationers did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment Monday.
The Georgia Legislature in 2000 passed a law that transferred the supervision of misdemeanor probationers from the state Department of Corrections to the counties. Some counties then contracted with for-profit companies.
The probationers said the law was allowing employees of private companies to act as officers of the court while having a duty to do what's best for their employers. That deprives the offenders of due process and allowed the imprisonment of those who couldn't pay their debt in violation of the state constitution, the probationers argued.
The probationers also argued that warrants obtained with the sworn testimony of Sentinel employees illegally extended sentences beyond the court-ordered term and that courts improperly ordered electronic monitoring at Sentinel's request leading to profits for the company.
"While the supervision of probation is a function historically performed by state probation officers, the mere act of privatizing these services does not violate due process," Chief Justice Hugh Thompson wrote in Monday's opinion.
It is up to the sentencing court to determine whether a defendant gets probation and the conditions for that probation, and it is also the court's responsibility to determine whether a probationer is able to make court-ordered payments and to consider other options if a probationer is unable to do so, the opinion says.
Thompson writes that the court is concerned by the allegations but finds that they are the result of alleged wrongdoing by private probation company employees rather than the result of the privatization of probation supervision.
"(W)e hold the statute does not on its face condone imprisonment for debt as alleged by the plaintiffs," the opinion says.
The high court found that the law does allow for electronic monitoring as a condition of probation for a misdemeanor offense but does not allow for the lengthening of sentences beyond what is originally ordered by the court.
The justices also sent the case back to a lower court to sort out several issues, including whether some individual probationers may have the right to recover fees they paid that Sentinel was not authorized to collect.
The high court's ruling dealt specifically with cases from the Richmond Judicial Circuit in eastern Georgia, but the ruling could affect all private probation companies statewide.