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This time they did it right

Posted: May 7, 2014 - 12:07am

It is easy to become disgusted with the activities of the politicians who inhabit the Gold Dome.

Considering some of the questionable dealings that take place year after year, it’s understandable why people who observe Georgia politics can get so discouraged.

But fair is fair. There are also times when our elected leaders rise to the occasion and do the right thing for the people they represent. We saw some evidence of that last week, as Gov. Nathan Deal finished signing or vetoing the bills passed in this year’s legislative session.

One of the few measures that Deal vetoed was HB 837, a real stinkburger of a bill that amounted to a huge giveaway for the private probation industry in Georgia.

The state’s court systems, which are hard-pressed for money, often contract with private companies to supervise people put on probation for misdemeanor offenses.

We are not talking about mass murderers or hardened rapists. These are people convicted of such low-level offenses as driving without a license, shoplifting, or possessing a small amount of drugs.

It’s usually cheaper for the courts to turn over the probation supervision of these offenders to a private firm, but it’s not always a good practice for those on probation.

Deal has tried to put the emphasis on rehabilitating low-level offenders so that they can return to society and become productive citizens. Private probation firms, on the other hand, put the emphasis on maximizing profits – and they do that by extracting as much as they possibly can in fines and fees from the people they supervise.

“They routinely charge over $2,000 per year for such monitoring in misdemeanor cases,” said Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights.

“People with limited incomes cannot afford such costs and often face probation revocation and jail when they cannot pay.”

This is a big business with a lot of money at stake. The Georgians on misdemeanor probation pay an estimated $125 million annually in fines and surcharges, according to a state audit.

Richmond County Superior Court Judge Danny Craig ruled last year that some of the procedures used by private probation firms in supervising these probationers were unconstitutional.

HB 837, introduced by Rep. Mark Hamilton (R-Cumming), was an attempt to work around Craig’s ruling. It also would have provided extra benefits for probation companies by allowing them to keep secret information about the number of people they supervise and the amount of money they collect in fees.

That was too much for Deal, who was also influenced by the recent release of a state audit that criticized the operations of private probation firms.

“Part of the bill that concerns me is the clause that was added in sort of late in the session about the secrecy of the records, of not making those available for inspection,” Deal said.

“There are a lot of red flags that were raised in the audit with regard to the process, the procedures, the reporting mechanism, and quite frankly the failure to follow existing protocols that are established both through the office of the courts, that has oversight over it, as well as some of the statutory requirements,” the governor added.

On the same day that he vetoed the private probation bill, Deal also signed HB 697, which provides extra tuition assistance for technical college students who maintain a high grade point average.

The bill corrects a mistake that was made in 2011 when the Legislature voted to reduce HOPE scholarship benefits, which included the HOPE Grants given to technical college students.

After those cutbacks took effect, the enrollment at technical colleges plummeted because thousands of students were unable to pay the tuition costs. Since these institutions provide much of the job training that businesses demand when they are asked to locate in Georgia, a drop in enrollment is harmful to the state’s economic development efforts.

HB 697 restores some HOPE benefits and, it is hoped, will bring students back to the technical colleges. This was a bipartisan measure sponsored by Rep. Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna) and passed overwhelmingly with the votes of Republicans and Democrats alike.

These were small victories for the people of Georgia, but they were still victories. They deserve to be noted.

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