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Georgia’s punishing probation system: Balancing public safety with giving people a second chance
ATLANTA — Janet Starley is a 62-year-old hairstylist who lives in a modest four-unit home in Lithonia that serves as a support center for formerly incarcerated women. When she’s not cutting hair at Great Clips, she spends her off days cleaning houses and pet-sitting. She lives frugally, rarely going out to eat or socialize. She said she’s saving 25 cents of every dollar she makes to buy a home, since she figures she’ll always have trouble finding a place to rent.
That’s because Starley is a convicted felon, now serving a 28-year probation sentence for trafficking and the manufacture of methamphetamine — or “ice” as it’s known in rural Georgia.
A former stimulants addict, she was arrested in 2010 along with her ex-husband, who she said was the dealer in the family. Caught up in a traffic accident-turned-drug bust one night when she agreed to give him a ride, Starley said she’s paying the price for the cardboard box he threw in her trunk, containing clothes and, as it turned out, half a kilo of meth. She spent 12 years in Georgia prisons until her release four months ago.
Starley now faces three more decades of correctional supervision and a whopping $350,000 fine. Besides paying her $100 monthly supervision fee, she’s subject to unannounced home visits and urine tests. She is keenly aware that a speeding ticket or other legal infraction could result in a probation revocation that would send her back to prison.
Among the toughest conditions of her probation: Being banished from her hometown of Warner Robins and Houston County, where most of her family lives, and from seven surrounding counties as well.
Starley numbers among the nearly 200,000 Georgians serving felony probation sentences, some 40% with sentences of 10 years or more. Georgia has the biggest probation population in the country — more than three times the national average with 4,136 probationers per 100,000 adults.
Combining both probation and parole system populations, 1 in 23 adult Georgians is currently under what’s termed “community supervision.” Nationally, 1 in 66 U.S. adults is under such state supervision.
With no statutory cap on the length of felony probation terms, sentences handed out by Georgia judges are significantly longer. Nationwide, the average probation sentence is two years, with about half of U.S. states capping probation sentences at five years.
In Georgia, the average straight felony probation term is seven years. In split sentences, the average Georgia felon, after serving prison time, is sentenced to 13 years of probation, according to the Department of Community Supervision (DCS).
Meanwhile, the costs to Georgia of maintaining this super-sized supervision system are high, and the returns on investment over time — in terms of reduced recidivism and public safety — are low, according to many judicial reform advocates.
“Having somebody on supervision for more than two years doesn’t really accomplish anything,” said Doug Ammar, executive director of the Georgia Justice Project (GJP), a nonprofit advocacy organization. “You know where people are going at that point. If somebody is going to do well, or do poorly, you know it by then.”
State Sen.-Elect Rick Williams, R-Milledgeville, agrees — “in theory.”
“It seems common sense that if someone is going to mess up, they’ll do it before five or 10 years,” said Williams. “But I’m more of a law and order person. I start with if you do the crime, you’ve got to do the time. I’ve not yet seen the research and data to convince me we should be shortening probation sentences.”
Ammar points to research showing that most people on probation who re-offend do so within 18 months to three years. But after that, he said, “society is getting diminishing returns. It’s not a good use of tax dollars to keep this person on probation if they are no longer a threat to public safety.”
The cost of DCS supervision is $182 million per year and averages about $2.20 a day per person, though people on probation get widely varying levels of attention and support according to their needs and risk levels. Most are nonviolent. In 2022, 62% of people serving felony probation in Georgia were sentenced for nonviolent drug and property crimes.
Some people report to probation officers monthly and are regularly drug tested. Others, who have violated probation terms such as curfews, no alcohol consumption or not paying monthly fees, may be required to attend counseling or boot camps to address their needs.
And many people who are considered low risk — about a third of those on felony supervision — phone into an automated reporting system to confirm their address, job status and whether they’ve had any encounters with law enforcement.
While there is broad consensus that Georgia has too many people under community supervision, some people are reluctant to make probation sentences more lenient.
“I want nonviolent people to have second chances,” said state Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah. "But we’ve got to keep violent people locked up or supervised as long as possible.”
Petrea has been sounding the alarm for several years about the risks posed by violent offenders living in his coastal Georgia district while serving either parole or probation, some of whom have committed rape and murder.
Last summer he and many others were incensed by a plea deal offering probation to a convicted felon who in 2019 was an alleged shooter in a home invasion that resulted in the death of two young men in Savannah.
Derek Gallop, Jr. was two weeks into his probation sentence after serving several years in prison for armed robbery at the time. Due to a lack of “smoking gun” evidence, the Savannah district attorney offered Gallop a plea deal that included three years of time served in prison and a 20-year probationary sentence for manslaughter, in lieu of a life sentence for murder.
“We’ve got an endless cycle of the same subset of violent men committing crimes over and over again,” said Petrea. “These people are dangerous, they need to be in prison, and when they come out, they need a lot more supervision than they’re getting. … If someone can convince me in considering a piece of legislation that reduces probation time for the nonviolent people who are not a risk to society, that it would somehow help the Department [DCS] to provide more supervision of violent individuals, I’d be all-in for that.”
State of surveillance
With such long probationary sentences for all types of offenses, many in the criminal justice field as well as civil rights advocates believe the probation system in Georgia is designed to trip people up and keep them entrapped.
“I don’t know how probation has served as rehabilitation,” said John Donnelly, chief public defender for the Western Judicial Circuit that includes Athens-Clarke County.
“It’s more surveillance to make sure you’re not screwing up. But people screw up in their lives; they’re messy. We’re largely talking about a population of people who grew up experiencing trauma, who are of a lower income status, who are living on the edge and struggling in so many different ways. We’re not going to fix them. But we can do them harm.”
Donnelly said he commonly defends people who failed to report to a meeting with their probation officer, which is a violation. Oftentimes, he said, they don’t have reliable transportation or may have reported to their probation officer on the wrong day. “Half the time, they are just being slack. But the remedy can be harsh.”
Donnelly recalled a client who recently was stopped for running a red light, a traffic violation that was in itself a probation violation. The client had not reported to his probation officer in months because “his ‘P.O.’ had changed and he didn’t know where to find” the new probation officer.
This resulted in a warrant for the client’s arrest. With no opportunity for bond as a probationer, the man spent six weeks in the county jail waiting to see a judge. In the interim, he lost his job.
“This happens all the time,” said Donnelly. “People lose jobs, they lose child custody, they lose housing. There’s just a lot of interference in someone’s life. If it’s the second or third violation, the judge might want to revoke their probation and send them to the county jail for 12 months. And you have to wonder, is the social cost worth it, just to get someone’s attention for not reporting to a meeting?”
In October, a study looking at Georgia’s rural jails found that the vast majority of jail admissions are for nonviolent offenses, including probation violations, drug possession, driving with a suspended license, and other traffic violations. Researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice and the University of Georgia (UGA) found that arrests for both misdemeanor and felony probation violations are primarily due to things such as missing an appointment, not paying a fee, or failing a drug test, rather than new criminal charges.
And once arrested, the problems of probationers are compounded by new jail fines and fees many can’t afford to pay, which results in extended confinement. Similar dynamics are at play in Georgia’s felony probation system, where the majority of DCS supervisees are nonviolent offenders of low-income status, and people of color are disproportionately represented. In every county in Georgia, Black people are at least twice as likely to be supervised as white people. At least half had received a mental health diagnosis prior to their sentencing.
People serving felony probation often find it difficult to find jobs with a decent wage or a place to live, due to the stigma around their felon status. They also face a variety of probationary conditions that sometimes include counseling or mandatory education that they must pay for, along with their monthly supervision fee. If they can prove they can’t afford to pay, they have to perform community service instead.
Adrian Williamson, 43, has been looking for an apartment since he was released from prison in February. Though he earns $17.50 an hour, and averages about 70 hours per week at a food plant in Villa Rica, he said his applications to several apartment rental companies in the area have been rejected.
“You pay $50 for an application and background check, and it’s hard. Either you never hear back from them, or if you call, they say ‘Some things came up, sorry.’ ”
Williamson was convicted of aggravated assault in 2016 after getting into a physical fight with his then-girlfriend. Due to prior offenses, he received a split sentence of 10 years and spent three years in prison and two at a transitional center in Valdosta.
Williamson said he hopes to reunite soon with his 8-year-old son, whom he hasn’t been allowed to visit since the boy was a toddler. By chance, a couple of months ago, he ran into his ex and his son at Walmart.
“They didn’t see me, but I saw them,” he said. “I was so shocked, and scared. I didn’t go up to him. I didn’t know what her reaction would be. I don’t want to do anything that could get me in trouble. I’ve come too far to get revoked.”
This continuous cycle of people entering, leaving and returning to the corrections system “is what drives our work,” said Ammar. Some 19% of people currently in Georgia prisons are there due to revocation of probation or parole — many for technical violations that are not crimes.
“Our core principle is that having a conviction shouldn’t be a lifetime sentence,” said Ammar. “It shouldn’t be perpetual punishment.”
Judicial reform efforts
The bloat in Georgia’s prison and probation populations is not new. When then-Gov. Nathan Deal decided to confront it in 2011, he kicked off a seven-year, comprehensive judicial reform effort that led to many changes designed to reduce Georgia’s high incarceration, parole and probation levels, and the big costs that come with them. At that point, the Department of Corrections budget exceeded $1 billion and was expected to keep growing.
The work of the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform was aimed in part at allowing the state’s law enforcement, judicial and correctional sectors to better focus on serious and violent offenders, repeat offenders, and others posing significant threats to peace and public safety.
One outcome of that reform effort was increased use of accountability courts, which allow people charged with nonviolent offenses deemed to be rooted in drug addiction, mental health and behavioral issues, and learning disabilities to seek treatment, counseling, job training and other support in lieu of jail or prison time.
Georgia now has 173 accountability courts, which serve about 30,000 people annually. Due to their high success rates, most people exiting the programs have jobs, test negative for drugs, and have lower recidivism rates.
Meanwhile, two laws passed in 2017 and 2018 featuring Behavioral Incentive Dates (BIDS) that allow people serving felony probation with good behavior to end their sentences early didn’t work. Ammar of the Georgia Justice Project said the laws in practice were “too convoluted, too complicated” and weren’t widely adopted by judicial system actors.
In 2021, the General Assembly passed SB 105, which simplified and streamlined the process for felony probationers to seek early termination. Those who have no probation revocations and no new arrests in two years, and who’ve paid all their restitution, can petition courts for release once they’ve served three years on probation.
Since SB 105 went into effect, the number of people serving felony probation in Georgia has dropped by 9%. From July 2021 to October 2022, 13,752 people have had their probation sentences terminated early, saving the state an estimated $34 million a year in community supervision costs.
Balancing sentencing reform with concerns about crime
Judicial reform advocates say the next and crucial frontier for reducing Georgia’s probation population is to find ways to limit the length of felony probation sentences on the front end.
Three bills proposing limits on probation sentences have failed in the Legislature over the past few years with many lawmakers reluctant to take discretionary power away from judges, especially when sentencing people for serious felony offenses.
State Sen.-Elect Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, who in 2021 co-sponsored a bill in the House that would limit felony probation sentences to two years, said he did so because “research shows you don’t get a public safety benefit to probation that lasts longer than two years, that’s pretty much undisputed at this point.”
McLaurin worries that any bill to cap probation sentences “without other reforms to go along with it” could have negative consequences. “I’m concerned that if we limit probation to two years, some judges who want to appear tough on crime will just squeeze the balloon and move the probated sentence back over to an actual custodial sentence,” said McLaurin.
He favors legislation creating a mandatory review process for any probation sentence “at the two-year mark, and if a number of factors are satisfied, relative to a person’s successful rehabilitation and reentry, and public safety goals are met, maybe it would make sense at that point to give DCS the ability to terminate a sentence. You can preserve the judge’s ability to condemn the crime in forceful terms, but as a policy matter the administration can evaluate people on a case-by-case basis and reduce the carceral footprint.”
What McLaurin described is similar to probation sentencing reform bills passed by several states over the past few years. Michigan now limits felony probation sentences to 3 to 5 years, and requires a review by the court at the halfway point, when people with good behavior can be terminated early. Those who haven’t met rehabilitation goals may have their sentences extended for 1 to 2 years.
McLaurin is not sanguine about the current prospects of such a reform bill in Georgia.
“As long as politicians are exploiting fear of crime and ignoring what the data shows about recidivism, it’s going to be difficult to tackle that head-on,” he said.
Head supervisor in the hot seat
The man at the center of the debate over how to handle probation and parole reform in a climate of widespread public concern about crime is eager to dig into the data. DCS Commissioner Michael Nail found himself in the hot seat a year ago, when the Senate Public Safety Committee summoned him to address rising homicide and violent crime rates across the state. He came armed with charts and stats in an effort to demonstrate that while violent crime is up in certain areas, the people driving it are not the probationers and parolees under his supervision.
Nail acknowledged that about 20% of felony supervisees re-offend each year. But he also presented data showing a steady decline over the previous four years in arrests of felony supervisees statewide. He insisted that “we are not the culprit of the increase in violent crime.”
Shortly after that, in January, the AJC reported that their analysis of crime and DCS internal data revealed that “since June 2018, Georgia felons under state supervision had been linked to more than 3,500 cases of violent crime. The cases include roughly 680 homicides, 670 sexual criminal acts, 285 robberies and 1,870 other serious violent felonies.”
“The folks we supervise are not driving the uptick in crime, though we’re usually the ones people want to point fingers at,” said Nail. “It’s imperative to look at data and trends, and to make decisions off of fact rather than assumptions.”
One trend continuing through 2022 is a rise in violent crime in urban areas of Atlanta, Macon, Savannah and Albany. Another trend is the longer-term drop in crime statewide. According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, from 2017 to 2021, violent crime in Georgia decreased 11%, while crime overall dropped 45%.
Nail said it’s important not to conflate the bad actors within DCS and society at large with the people deserving of a second chance when it comes to judicial reform efforts.
“The criminal justice system agrees that there are individuals who do not need to be in our [supervision] community, because they don’t need our services, and they’re taking up time and resources from the high-risk, high-need people that do need a greater level of service,” he said.
Presently DCS probation officers carry an average caseload of 109 people, about twice as many as the American Probation and Parole Association recommends.
“A lot of people don’t understand, you can actually over-supervise these individuals,” said Nail. “To carry on for years with some is doing more harm than good. At a certain point, we’re not doing anything for you. … Felony conviction stands in the way of employment, makes it hard to get stable and long-term housing, and being on supervision creates even more barriers.”
He said rather than one-size-fits-all sentencing laws, based on the offense, he’d like to see an array of evidence-based interventions to meet the needs of people, starting at the point of arrest.
“It’s always an afterthought about what to do about individuals on supervision, until something goes bad,” he said. He notes the average age of a felony probationer is 34.
“And my question is always ‘You know, it’s amazing how they get arrested, get sentenced, and then they come my way and say ‘fix this guy’ and it’s like, ‘Where the hell has everybody else been for the past 30 years’?”
While reducing the length of probation sentences is “the brass ring everyone’s shooting for,” said Ammar, the Georgia Justice Project will not push for that legislation until 2024. He said GJP wants to give SB 105 time to play out, “before we go for something bigger. We’d like to see another 20,000 people get terminated early, and then corral the stakeholders and say, ‘What’s next?’”
Header photo: Janet Starley is a 62-year-old hairstylist who lives in a modest four-unit home in Lithonia that serves as a support center for formerly incarcerated women. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)
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