At a time when most local governments are scaling back by reducing staff and passing off services to private companies, one Hall County department is about to expand.
Beginning June 1, Hall County Court Administration will bring probation service in-house, requiring new staff positions, including eight probation officers that the county is currently trying to hire, and breaking ties with the private company that has provided the service.
The move is set up to be budget neutral, with revenues from probation fees, including those for alcohol and drug tests and electronic monitoring, paying for the service.
As part of the reorganization approved in December, the new misdemeanor probation office will move into the county’s new Judicial Accountability Services building on Browns Bridge Road, along with the court’s Treatment Services and Pretrial Services divisions.
This move to the new building was originally slated for March, but progress with renovations and the installation of fiber optics cables to the building have taken longer than expected. Instead, Treatment Service will move to the new building beginning May 15, with probation services scheduled to be moved in by June 1.
The in-house probation services are intended to run in concert with the county’s five treatment courts, which are drug, DUI, mental health, family treatment and parental accountability.
The change is part of a philosophical shift with local judges and leaders to offer treatment to willing low-level offenders rather than only jail time.
With the addition of a drug testing lab at the newly renovated building, the county’s Judicial Accountability Services will be a “one-stop shop” for implementing the treatment philosophy, said Hall County Court Administrator Reggie Forrester.
The criminal justice veteran said such an approach is good for everyone.
“Our attitudes have changed to the understanding that, while not all criminals are treatable, most of them are,” said Forrester. “When we begin accomplishing things is when we take these people out of the constant circle of crime, probation, jail, crime, probation, jail.”
The approach is building off the success of local treatment court programs that have sought to give drug offenders
and offenders with mental illnesses help, rather than just putting them in jail.
When successful, the monitored treatment programs can reduce crime and save taxpayers money in housing inmates.
But Forrester said offenders are not getting off easily, either.
The court system will lend a “hand of understanding” to those who come through the system, Forrester said, but the offenders have to cooperate to get the treatment.
“Don’t get me wrong, if they need to go to jail, we will put them in jail,” he said.
One of the advantages to bringing probation services in-house is greater authority to deal with probationers.
“A private company does not have arrest powers,” Forrester said.
If a probationer appears under the influence, a privately employed probation officer could not make an arrest, but a county officer with probable cause could.
The probation office will be led by the county’s current Pretrial Services Director Ronnie Forrester, a distant cousin of Reggie Forrester. Kevin Head, a veteran of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, will be deputy director.
County Commissioner Scott Gibbs said the new arrangement would save taxpayers, since the county will no longer be renting out office space that previously housed the services.
The move into the new building at 2318 Browns Bridge Road, previously occupied by Avita, is expected to save the county roughly $100,000 in rent it had been paying to house the services at a Main Street facility.
Michelle Beverly, the county’s assistant court administrator, said the expenses for the change, originally estimated at $427,000 for building renovation, $620,000 in personnel costs and $77,623 in other start-up costs, are all coming in under budget. Some of those reductions have come from reusing old furniture and consolidating staff positions.