In a much anticipated decision arising out of multiple civil actions against Sentinel Offender Services, LLC, a private for-profit probation company, the Supreme Court of Georgia held on November 24, 2014, that private probation companies, such as Sentinel, are constitutionally allowed to supervise misdemeanor probationers. The court added, however, that lower courts cannot toll a probationer’s sentence after it has been imposed, saying that misdemeanor “sentences are fixed at one year and once a sentence has been served, jurisdiction over the defendant ceases.”
Tolling effectively means that the imposed sentence is put on pause because the probationer cannot be located or has ceased to pay his or her court imposed penalties. By putting the sentence on pause through tolling, the courts and law enforcement have time to track down offenders who have left the jurisdiction or have simply stopped reporting to court-mandated probation.
The decision by the Supreme Court of Georgia prohibits courts which utilize private probation companies from placing any such timeout on a sentence. Without tolling, misdemeanor probationers will have their sentences conclude within a year, whether or not the probationer ever completes the court imposed punishment.
The Supreme Court also held that electronic monitoring and other conditions of misdemeanor probation, such as drug and alcohol testing, is allowed, even if supervised by private probation companies.
Further, the court held that private probation company contracts with courts must follow Georgia state law and be approved by the city or county; if not, the contract could be declared invalid and void. The Court held that if such contracts are not approved by the responsible local government, the private probation company would have no right to collect probation supervision fees and could be responsible for returning any collected fees.
This decision will significantly impact all levels of courts in the state, including municipal courts, and will affect the adjudication of misdemeanor offenses.
GMA does expect legislation in the upcoming legislative session concerning private probation. However, any legislation is months away from becoming law. Cities are strongly encouraged to review the decision with their city attorney and municipal court personnel, including the municipal court judge, to ensure that the city’s municipal court does not violate any of the holdings in these cases.