A surge in local probationers led the county court system to purchase a $420,000 building for the Hall County Probation Office.
Hall County’s misdemeanor probation rolls have grown from 1,450 people in 2012 to more than 3,200 today, Court Administrator Reggie Forrester said on Wednesday, creating a demand for more staff and more space.
The Hall County Board of Commissioners is expected to sign off on the $420,000 purchase of the 2314 Murphy Boulevard property during its Thursday voting meeting to accommodate the extra workload.
Probation officers have already moved from their previous office on Browns Bridge Road to the new building, Forrester said. The new facility was built to house the old state probation office, making the move simple for the county.
The probation office had been coupled with the county’s various treatment courts, including drug, DUI, mental health, family treatment, parental accountability, substance abuse services evaluations and referrals, and veterans court at 2318 Browns Bridge Road.
Hall County’s treatment courts have 38 employees.
With the number of probationers doubled and more than 500 people now involved in treatment courts, Forrester said the needs of combined departments were outgrowing the old space.
“The issue of growth that we were facing out there … is our parking just wouldn’t hold the cars any longer,” Forrester said. “We were beginning to have some parking lot accidents.”
Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard, who is responsible for prosecuting misdemeanor crimes, said the new building will be an asset to the probation office as local judges and state lawmakers continue to rethink criminal justice in Georgia.
She noted that statewide criminal justice reform changed many felonies into misdemeanors and used shoplifting as an example. In previous years, shoplifting was a felony if an item was worth more than $150. Today, a stolen item has to be worth more than $1,500 to carry a felony charge.
“That was to bring the assessment of penalties of crimes into a more modern view,” Woodard said on Wednesday. “That’s not to say shoplifting isn’t wrong or to decriminalize it by any stretch, but you could steal an old beater car that you couldn’t sell for $500, and it was still a theft by taking motor vehicle felony, which kept you from getting jobs.”
Hall County’s additional probation load comes down to watchful judges, she said.
“If the judge is watching, you don’t screw up as much,” Woodard said of judges monitoring probation. “... They’re much more worried about restoration of the defendant to employed, sober, responsible and restoration of the victim to as close to whole as this court system can make them — to answer for any property damaged or stolen, paying for any counseling.”
By adding the new building, Hall County hopes to seek probation contracts with the cities of Flowery Branch and Oakwood, which have their own misdemeanor probation services.
Flowery Branch Manager Bill Andrew said the city council voted to renew its contract with Georgia Probation Management on Aug. 17.
“I am not aware of Hall County offering probation services to the city in the past,” Andrew said.
“If they were to make an offer to the city, we would be glad to consider it.”
The city of Gainesville has its own probation office, but Forrester said there haven’t been any discussions about Hall County assuming those duties.
The court administrator said three issues have created more probationers since 2012: state criminal justice reform, a slow economy and heightened enforcement of laws.
“We just had the largest state court arraignment we’ve ever had, with I think about 300 people present for an arraignment,” Forrester said. “So things are really moving along.”
Georgia’s reform of its court system has opted for less jail time in favor of a longer period of probation for many offenders. It’s also reduced state prison rolls and pushed more people into county court systems.
“So we’re beginning to grow in staff,” Forrester said.
The state recommends counties have one probation officer for every 225 probationers. Hall County currently employs 13 probation officers — two officers short of state guidelines.
Forrester said two more officers will be hired in October. The office also has five administrative staff, adding up to a total of 20 employees as of October.