Hall County officials are touting the success of the court’s misdemeanor probation office a year after its creation.
“We had asked to create a pretty large department at a time when the economy was not good, and dollars were short, and we made certain commitments to the Hall County commission that we felt we could accomplish in a year,” Hall County Court Administrator Reggie Forrester said.
Probation is granted by the court as an alternative to jail time. Probationers repay society via fines and community service until their sentence is completed.
In its first year, the probation office’s budget was about $18,000 in the red from a budget of $625,000. But fine revenue rose by $350,000, which is money paid to the clerk and distributed to the indigent defense account, general crime victim’s fund and in restitution to specific victims.
“Those are things as a private company, we probably wouldn’t have kept,” Forrester said of the increases.
“It’s a principled issue — operating a probation department for profit, versus operating a probation department for a delivery of service both to the courts and to the probationers.”
Policy groups have criticized the use of private probation officers, including a firm in Augusta facing multiple civil lawsuits.
Forrester said he wasn’t criticizing contractors’ work; rather, he had a strong sense the county had the structure and capability to better deliver probation services and accountability.
“We felt that we had a fine drug testing laboratory, and we ought to be doing our own testing,” Forrester said, but the county lacked “direct control over handling our issues.”
In fact, the county’s looming concern that urine samples weren’t being adequately monitored — allowing violations to slip undetected — proved legitimate.
“It proved itself out the first week we had probation in-house, and we had to arrest 60 people with dirty drug and alcohol screens,” he said.
From the judicial side, State Court Judge B.E. Roberts III agreed, saying shortcomings in services were an “understandable” complication of conflicting interests.
“A private probationer, their function is to make profit for their corporation, their owner, whoever that may be,” Roberts said. “But it’s like the biblical verse, ‘No man can serve two masters.’ And the probation officer was trying to serve the court as well as function is that capacity as an employe to satisfy their owners, or their managers, and that became a difficult position for them to achieve.”
Since the change, Roberts said he’s seen positive changes.
“We’ve have seen closer supervision of these probationers; more precise monetary accountability; better responses dealing with violators,” Roberts said. “It’s also not uncommon for me to have a probationer who, because of financial concerns, wants to convert some of their sentence over to community service hours. Sometimes what I was seeing previously was long delays before that was brought to my attention, limiting the amount of time I had left in which to deal with that. We’re seeing a more responsive type of intervening in that regard with our probation officers.”
Forrester said truthful fulfillment of community service hours was another area of concern.
“We had received an indication that they were taking timesheets and having friends, relatives sign off. We were looking for integrity in community service,” he said.
An officer was given the task of assigning all community service, Forrester said.
“The majority of our community service is done on the weekends,” he said. “We have a community service bus, where we assign probationers and they pick up litter throughout the county on Saturdays and Sundays. We now are receiving verified community service from probationers and it’s making a lot of difference.”
Even with the solid results of a three-year study in hand, Forrester said he remains “amazed” the project was approved by the Board of Commissioners a year ago.
“I remember when we were getting prepared to do the presentation to the county commission and thinking, ‘How do we deliver a request to create a complete government bureaucracy funding in a time when things are not the best?’” he recalled.
Roberts said that was why it was pivotal to stress to the commission that the office wouldn’t be a bureaucratic mess, but business-oriented and practical.
“The thing I told the county commission was that it is generally perceived that addition to government is bad, but in this instance ... it’s been more of an asset, part of the reason being based that we were able to say ‘we want this based off of a true business model, with the accountability coming to the county commission,’” he said. “This was a first-year startup business, and for us to have those kind of numbers ... I thought was exceptional.”
The office has a director, deputy director, and until recently, three administrators and eight probation officers who monitor 1,879 probationers. A fourth administrator and ninth probation officer recently were added.
“We think the second year is going to be even more productive,” Forrester said. “Things are running pretty smooth out there.”
One area the office looks to improve is flexibility for probationers.
“If probationers are going to pay fees, and pay for drug testing and other things, they first thing they’ve got to have is a job, and an opportunity to keep the job,” he said. “We wanted to bring some flexibility in reporting hours and drug testing hours so that it didn’t interfere with a person to the point that they might lose a job, or lose part of their pay.”
Michelle Beverly, assistant court administrator and a point person on the three-year research project that endorsed the in-house move, said changes are coming.
“On Oct. 1, we’re changing our lab hours on the weekends to make it a little easier for them to make sure they can get in and do their drug testing,” she said. “We stay open now one night a week two extra hours in the evening so they can also come in and do their reporting, see their probation officer and do their drug screenings.”
Commission Chairman Richard Mecum said keeping the office in-house breeds a greater sense of duty to serve the county.
“What you’re endeavoring to do is to teach people how to live in society in an accountable and responsible fashion,” Mecum said. “If you say you’re going to be at work at 8 o’clock., be at work at 8 o’clock. If you’re supposed to do a job, learn to do a job. And it’s surprising how many people in our society don’t really understand that, and it gets them in a lot of trouble. So it’s teaching these kinds of things to people, and when you farm that out ... to a contractor, they don’t care. All they’re into it basically is to make a buck.
“We’re interested in lives, people’s lives, and hopefully a better quality type of life in the county itself and the community.”