ATLANTA — The state council overseeing private probation companies voted unanimously Wednesday to launch a criminal investigation against a Darien-based firm but declined to offer policy recommendations in response to a recent Supreme Court decision that altered the system of for-profit supervision of those convicted of minor offenses.

The County and Municipal Probation Advisory Council, composed of judicial, law-enforcement and probation officials, scheduled a hearing into seven allegations against Shea Smith and her company, South Georgia Probations Inc. She did not appear at the meeting nor was there an attorney representing her or the company.

Council Chairman Michael Terrell, Coweta County’s chief probation officer, recommended that the council revoke the company’s license to provide probation and prohibit Smith from ever entering the field again. But council member James Thurman, Lee County magistrate judge, said recommended referring the case to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, as the council has done in the past.

The council will likely vote at its next, quarterly meeting on the results of that investigation. However, Smith had already submitted resignation letters earlier this week to McIntosh County courts that had contracted with her company.

The allegations stem from an October inspection by the council staff that turned up multiple problems. They include making false statements, issues with management and failure to register all employees, conduct criminal background screenings and ensure their qualifications.

The staff also found problems with what it called “front loading fees,” taking fees instead of ensuring the offender conducted court-ordered community service and collecting fees for drug tests that were never performed.

The hearing was to occur originally in November, but Smith told the council she couldn’t make it because she was sick.
Council member Steve Page, CEO of Georgia Probation Management, applauded his colleagues.

“I think this is a great way for the council to handle a problem,” he said. “I think it’s important for the courts and the industry that we deal with problems quickly.”

A group of Augusta-area lawsuits against Sentinel Offender Services, an Atlanta-based company that is one of the state’s largest, led the Supreme Court to rule last month that probation companies cannot extend the length of sentences when offenders don’t pay their fees.

After the decision, courts across the state rescinded thousands of arrest warrants against people for nonpayment.

During a public-comment period, Clay Cox, a former legislator who once sponsored a bill to disband or water down the council, told the council members the court decision had created confusion for probation companies like the one he owns.

“Some direction, possibly from this body, would be helpful,” he said, noting that many of the people with extended sentences were guilty of violent crimes and not the minor traffic offenses mentioned in media reports about the issue.

Council member John Ott, a superior court judge in the Alcovy Circuit, said it wasn’t the council’s job.

“The proper function is for the legislature to step in and decide what needs to be done in this field because the Supreme Court decision exposed a flaw, and now is the time for people to act.”
The General Assembly convenes Jan. 12 for its 40-day legislative session. So far, none of the bills filed in advance have addressed probation.

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