Connections matter in Ga. private probation industry
State representative calls 2000 law allowing private probation companies 'big business'; many are controlled by former law enforcement officials
By Rhonda Cook
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA — Many private probation companies in Georgia are controlled by former law enforcement officials, and they're leveraging their connections into lucrative contracts.
"This is big business," said state Rep. Gerald Greene, R-Cuthburt, a key player in the passage of the 2000 law that gave the industry a kick start.
"There are many individuals out there seeking to own these private probation companies," Greene said
The idea of allowing private probation companies to take some of the load off overburdened state probation officers was first proposed in 1992, but the best backers could do then was push through a law that would at least relieve state probation officers from supervising misdemeanor traffic offenders.
Then in 2000, with support coming from powerful politicians, the Georgia Legislature agreed that only felons should be supervised by state probation officers. The others would be watched by local governments, which could hire private companies to do the work.
"This is completely dominated by retired state probation people and wardens of state prisons," said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who was recently appointed to the council that hears complaints related to the public and private probation supervision. "They created this industry for themselves."
Steve Bright, the senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, said he doesn't necessarily have a problem former law enforcement officers dominating the industry.
"My problem is with the companies themselves and the fact that people are getting rich off the poorest people in society," he said. "Many private probation companies don't do anything but collect checks from people. Perhaps someone who has run a loan company would be better qualified."
Tony Moreland, a co-owner of Georgia Probation Services, said the job of supervising probationers requires "someone with experience."
"We saw an opportunity ... and we wanted to have a positive impact," said John Prescott, vice president of operations with Southeast Corrections and a former probation officer in the Department of Corrections.
The industry will have a presence during this year's legislative session.
The president of the Private Probation Association of Georgia, Danna Philmon, said the industry trade group was still working on its legislative plans. They most likely will include a measure concerning the practice of tolling, essentially stopping the clock when a probationer absconds and extending the term of his probation. A Richmond County judge has found tolling to be unconstitutional, but that question is being appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.
Private probation companies would have no power without tolling, Prescott said.
"If we don't have the ability to do that [toll], that person can hide out for 12 months," he said.
Politics have figured in the private probation movement from the beginning.
Two of the most powerful allies of the idea were Board of Pardons and Paroles Chairman Walter Ray and board member Bobby Whitworth, also once the commissioner of the Department of Corrections.
Whitworth and Ray were accused of taking money from a company founded by two former Department of Corrections officials. Whitworth said the $75,000 that Detention Management Services paid him was for consulting and not lobbying, but he was still convicted and sentenced to six months in prison, but he was sentenced as a first offender so he has been cleared of the conviction. Ray was forced to resign.
DMS, headed by two former prison officials, Lanson Newsome and Bud Black, was then sold to Sentinel Offender Services for $8.2 million just a few months after the law took effect.
Another official who left his government job to start a private probation business was former Deputy Corrections Commissioner Walter Zant, who died in 2009. He secured contracts for ZSI Probation Services with several small towns just south Atlanta -- Barnesville, Hampton, Jackson, Locust Grove and Molena to name a few.
The chief executive officer of Judicial Corrections Services is Robert McMichael, who was Fulton County's sheriff and the U.S. marshal for the Northern District of Georgia.
In Gwinnett County, two companies with politically connected leaders have contracts with the various courts. Former state Rep. Clay Cox, a Lilburn Republican, is the CEO of Professional Probation Services. Developer and former County Commissioner Wayne Mason has ties to Southeast Corrections in that a family trust owns shares in the company.
The other co-owner of Georgia Probation Services Inc. is the brother of the district attorney in the four-county Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit in northwest Georgia, Herbert "Buzz" Franklin. Franklin, who prosecutes misdemeanors in two counties that do not have state courts or a solicitor, was one of the company's founders. But before he took office, he sold his share to his brother, a former municipal court judge and another of the company's co-founders.
"The primary benefit is it costs local governments less money," said Franklin, who was in private practice when he went into the private probation business in 1994. "The cost is borne by the probationers. To the extent I'm familiar with them, they provide pretty good service. We haven't had any issues."
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