Monday, September 04, 2023

Oconee County Being Asked To Decide Whether To Set Up County Misdemeanor Probation System Or Join With Clarke County

***Judge Says He Will Not Renew Current Private Contract***

Western Judicial Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Eric Norris wants Oconee County to create its own misdemeanor probation system or join with Athens-Clarke County to form a circuit wide misdemeanor probation system.

Norris told the Oconee County Board of Commissioners last week that he does not intend to allow the county to renew the contract it currently has with CSRA Probation Services Inc. for probation services.

Norris said he does not believe CSRA can provide the services the county will need in the future, particularly because of the growth in crime in the county’s commercial center.

The county does not spend any money on misdemeanor probation services under the current contract with CSRA. CSRA funds its services though the fees that probationers pay directly to the company.

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell estimates it will cost the county about $500,000 to join in a circuit wide probation system and possibly even more to create its own county wide system.

Daniell said at the meeting last week that he believes CSRA can provide what Oconee County needs and made it clear that he would prefer to renew the contract when it expires on June 30 of next year.

Steve Queen, Director of Business Development for CSRA, told the Board he agrees with Daniell about the ability of his company to provide for the county's needs, but he also said he would partner with the county to create a county-wide system if that is the county’s choice.

Norris said repeatedly that he would approve of the county setting up its own system, but he and Superior Court Judges H. Patrick Haggard and Lisa Lott made it clear they preferred that Oconee County join with Clarke County to create a circuit wide system.

Unusual Meeting

The agenda for the Aug. 29 agenda-setting meeting of the Board of Commissioners listed “Chief Judge Discussion on Probation Services” as the first on a small list of items to be considered by the Board.

Norris Addressing Hunsinger

When the meeting began, however, Norris was surrounded on the left-hand side of the Commission Chamber by fellow Superior Court Judges Haggard and Lott, Oconee County Magistrate Court Judge Richard Connelly, Probate Court Judge Mike Hunsinger, Clerk of Superior, Magistrate and Juvenile Courts Angela Elder-Johnson, and 10th Judicial District Court Administrator Tracy BeMent.

On the right-hand side of the room were Queen and four members of his team.

The fourth Superior Court Judge, Lawton Stephens, joined the group on the left side partway through the meeting.

In the end, that first item on the agenda took up just less than 1 hour and 20 minutes out of a meeting than ran 1 hour and 33 minutes.

Probation is a sentence of imprisonment that is suspended so the individual avoids serving time in jail. In exchange for avoiding jail time, the individual is required to follow court-imposed rules or probation conditions.

Criticism Of CSRA

Norris made numerous negative comments about CSRA as he gave his presentation to the Board, though he went out of his way to say he was not criticizing the two women who provide CSRA services to Oconee County.

Near the end of the meeting, however, Commissioner Mark Saxon said he had read in advance materials provided to him “but I don’t know that I remember seeing your concerns about CSRA written down. Did we get a copy of that of y’alls concerns?”

“I don't think I've written the concerns,” Norris said. “I mean I can just tell you that it’s numbers. They are almost maxed out based on pretrial and current probationers.”

“They don’t have arrest powers,” he continued. “Cannot transport. They cannot do what is called Georgia Criminal Index. They don’t have the ability to do that. That is a highly secure process. You have to get authorized, training and permitted.”

“No on-site drug testing,” Norris told Saxon. “Really can’t adequately supervise. Again, that’s not the people. It is just the circumstances of their employment and the limitations.”

“The frequency and time of contact that we would like to see for people who are on probation to insure that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Norris continued. “Consideration of indigencies. How is that going to affect, because CRSA is a for profit business?”

“When you have a lot of indigent cases that are not paying supervision fees, that can cut into your margins,” Norris said.

More On Fees

“And for us, ethically, and I’ll say this,” Norris continued in his response to Saxon. “This was one of the other issues.”

Norris and Saxon

“No attribution when I say this,” Norris said. “But it’s been floated to us a couple of times that, you know, CSRA is worried about people, the number of people who are, the fees are being waived. And that might affect some of their personnel.”

“Whether that is true or not, that is something that we should never hear,” he said. “It shouldn’t be brought up to us.”

“I don’t want anything like that to affect our judicial discretion or making decisions regarding people that are sentenced, especially when the law says you shall waive, when the person is indigent,” Norris said.

Challenge From Daniell

“You’ve not heard that from the company itself?” Daniell asked Norris.

“I’m not going to give any attribution, Sir,” Norris responded.

“Earlier you said you hadn’t communicated with the company, so obviously it hadn’t come from the company,” Daniell said.

“I haven’t talked to the owner,” Norris said. “And I haven’t talked to anybody. But I’m not giving any attribution to that. I can just tell you that that has been directed.”

“Just cooler talk,” Daniell said.

“Pardon?” Norris replied.

“Just water cooler talk,” Daniell said.

“No,” Norris said. “If it has come to me, then it is for a reason.”

Response From CRSA

Daniell invited Queen to come to the podium once Norris had finished his comments.

“I don’t want to get into a family quarrel,” Queen said. “It seems a little bit like what this is.”

“I would just like to say that CSRA Probation Services has served the courts here in Oconee County, has served the county, for well over 10 years. That is our purpose, our goal, and our direction.”

“Many of the things that the judges have mentioned, the services that they would like to see, we could adapt to those and provide those,” he said. “Can’t meet you with arrest powers because we’re not allowed to do that.”

Queen denied that there has been any problem with finances.

“I can tell you, if it was a situation where we were not able to sustain our operation, we’d have been coming to you well before this, and saying our arrangement needs to change,” he said. “Or we need to leave.”

“We are very sensitive to the growth in the courts that we serve,” he added. “When there needs to be additional personnel, we put on the additional personnel.”

“As a private entity, we don’t have to wait for the budget cycle in order to do that,” he said. “We do it based on our business metrics that we watch every day.”

In response to a question from Commissioner Mark Thomas, Queen said CRSA would be glad to discuss how it could work with the county on a county-wide plan if that were the county’s choice.

Costs Of Options

Commissioner Chuck Horton asked Norris to explain his estimate of costs should Oconee County decide to join Clarke County in a circuit wide probation system.

Norris, Judges, And Five Board Members 

“I haven’t even gone down that path,” Norris said, “because what I wanted to do, was before the contract expires, I want to know, either county probation or circuit probation.”

Norris acknowledged he had asked Mark Pulliam, Chief Probation Officer in Clarke County, “to run an idea proposal just so we could have some numbers and I shared that with the chairman back in March.”

“Basically it would be two probation officers, but they can go back. They could go back and forth because if it's a circuit wide probation you're not limited to Oconee County.”

“You can go back and forth between the two and so they already have a staff of 18, 20, I think it is,” Norris said.

Daniell’s Calculations

On Thursday (Aug. 31), I sent both Judge Norris and Chairman Daniell a request for documents relevant to the meeting on Tuesday night.

Norris did not respond, but Daniell, in a telephone conversation on Friday (Sept. 1) said he was creating “a little summary of all the meetings I’ve had with the judge” that he would share with me as soon as it is completed.

Daniell said he met with Norris in January and in March.

“On March 16, that was the first time we got presented any data from Clarke County Probation,” he said. “They have a total of 18 certified probation officers doing 1,700 probationers.”

Athens-Clarke County is spending $1.853 million dollars on its service, he said.

“So the quote that was thrown out to us at that meeting was $230,000 for two officers and one administrative person,” Daniell said. “But that doesn’t take into account any of the supervision or infrastructure that exist in place. Drug lab testing. Computer system where they track probationers, and all of that.”

“They said that would be direct costs related to sending people from Clarke County over here to Oconee,” Daniell said. “Again, no conversations been had with the Athens-Clarke County government.”

“So I doubt that that is really an accurate number because they have a chief and assistant chief and supervisory positions” that we would have to be factored in, he said.

Costs Of County System

Daniell said he had no estimate of what it would take for Oconee County to run its own misdemeanor probation system.

Queen (Shot From Screen)

“We haven’t done that yet,” he said, “but just looking at what they’re spending now, and if we would have to have two additional officers and an admin and you look at the case count percentage, we’d be half a million dollars in a circuit wide and we’d be spending at least that, possibly more, with an in house.”

“Right now, Oconee Probation is funded by users,” he said. “I think there are less than 500 probationers out there for Oconee courts. And they pay fees to the CSRA.”

Daniell said “I got some numbers back in December of (20)22 that show that 84 percent of everybody on probation in Oconee County are from outside of Oconee County.”

Daniell said that the data show that 51 percent of the users come from some other county than Clarke County, and 33 percent are from Clarke County.

“So only 16 percent of the people on probation are citizens of Oconee County,” he said.

“The taxpayers of Oconee County right now are not paying anything for the people that come over here and commit crime and get put on probation,” he said.

Daniell said the county would get the fees now being paid to CRSA, but he estimates that would be less than $200,000 a year because the judges waive many of the fees and many fees are delinquent.

Oconee Crime

Judge Norris began his comments to the Board on Tuesday with a reference to Oconee County crime.

Norris said he had spoken with Daniell back in January about probation services with CSRA “and mentioned that we were moving into probably a new direction by not renewing that contract.”

The five-year contract expires on June 30 of 2024 or “at latest January of 2025,” Norris said.

“You are wanting to go to a circuit wide probation basically, right?” Daniell asked.

“Not necessarily,” Norris said. “I think back on our discussion in March, basically what we have is either an opportunity to create a county probation, which has its benefits but also has its potential costs for starting that up. I’m fine with that too.”

“I don’t have any issue with that, or a Circuit wide probation, which actually may make better financial sense and, quite honestly, with the customers that come through the courts.”

“A large part of them do not reside in the (Oconee) county,” he said. “A large part reside outside our county in an adjacent county and some of the other adjacent counties.”

Later, Norris told Daniell “These citizens, most of them who are on probation are in the Athens area. Maybe Barrow County. Adjoining counties, because they like to come over and shop lift in Epps Bridge.”

Changes Observed

“We’ve had 20 years of growth,” Norris said later in his comments. “We’ve had 20 years of seeing the county change. We’ve seen a lot of changes in the courts.”

“And where we are with the courts now we need to make sure that we’re moving forward with the services that we need to provide the citizens, and for the customers that come through the courts,” he said.

“They’re being monitored and supervised for these misdemeanors,” he said. “And understand, just because the person is on a misdemeanor, it doesn’t mean it didn’t start out as a felony. We have a lot of cases that have started out as felonies and then have become misdemeanors.”

“And those are usually individuals that need a little bit more attention,” Norris said. “A little bit more time and care and checking on, supervision, maybe drug testing, things of that nature.”

“That’s where again, the scope of CSRA’s services have really kind of reached the limit for where we need to be especially if we’re going forward in the next 15, 20 years as we see the growth continuing not only in the county, and in the services, but in the courts,” Norris said.

A misdemeanor is an offense punishable by up to 12 months in jail or less, plus a fine of up to $1,000 in most cases.

Disagreement On Authorization

Norris asserted from the beginning that the decision on renewal of the contract with CSRA was one he would make.

“If we decided we wanted to stay with the contract, based on what you said earlier, that’s not going to be doable?” Saxon asked late in the meeting.

“That’s correct,” Norris said.

“There’s a difference of opinion on that,” Daniell said.

“We feel that we are authorized to continue under the until something happens,” Daniell said. “We definitely cannot change from one system to another without Superior Court approval. We’ve already got their approval.”

Both Norris and Daniell agreed that under current law, any change in authorization would have to be approved by the Misdemeanor Probation Oversight Unit of the Department of Community Supervision, which approved a private system for Oconee in the past.

Other Circuits

Horton asked Norris if other circuits were doing circuit wide probation services for misdemeanors.

Norris said he didn’t know the answer.

District Court Administrator BeMent told me in an email on Friday (Sept. 1) that of the seven judicial circuits in the 10th Judicial District, only the Northern Circuit has a circuit wide probation system.

That District consists of Elbert, Franklin, Hart, Madison, and Oglethorpe counties.

Most of the 21 counties in the seven circuits are using private providers, with Oconee and three other counties or circuits using CRSA.

According to the Misdemeanor Provider Listing of the Misdemeanor Probation Oversight Unit, of the 63 listed providers in the state, 17 are private companies, including CRSA, and the remaining 47 are governmental.

CRSA, among other private providers, have contracts with multiple governments.

Other Judges

Queen With CRSA Team To His Right

Norris invited other judges to address the Board as well.

Superior Court Judge Haggard said the county could establish its own probation system. “It is cumbersome, but it could be done,” he said. “But is certainly would not be as successful as you could have if there was that circuit wide situation. They’ve got the machinery.”

Magistrate Judge Connelly said “I’m the one who is actually doing a lot of the pleas now for misdemeanor shoplifting.”

“What I was excited about when Judge Norris presented this to me is it's another way to monitor some of these people when they're on bond. That's the part that I'm dealing with.”

“I don’t want to suggest that we should have a circuit wide probation or county probation,” Superior Court Judge Lott said. “I think that is a discussion that has to continue.”

“But I would say as far as a circuit wide sort of circumstance, we already have a circuit wide circumstance in most of our judicial processes. We are the Western Judicial Circuit.”

“I have to say the Western Judicial Circuit is an incredible circuit with Clarke and Oconee County,” she said. “You have an incredible reputation in the state because of both counties.”

“And we have four judges that are circuit wide,” she said. “We have a public defender who is circuit wide. And a district attorney that is circuit wide. So we have a history and experience really having circuit wide things. This would not be sort of the only one.”

Summary Exchange

An exchange late in the meeting between Norris and Daniell summarized the disagreements between them.

“We’re shifting the burden of the probation from the user to the property owners in Oconee County,” Daniell said of Norris’ decision to terminate the contract with CRSA.

“I think what you are saying really is that the county has an obligation to provide public protection,” Norris responded. “Just like it does for the Sheriff’s Office. Just like it does for the courts. And probation. So that is a necessary form of government.”

“I’ll be paying those taxes too,” said Norris, who lives in Oconee County.

“I’m saying, we’re doing that now through the private entity that has contracted with Oconee County to provide those services,” Daniell said.

“Yes,” Norris responded.

Daniell ended the discussion without any indication of what the next step will be for the county.

Other Business

In other business at the meeting on Tuesday, the county gave tentative approval to a Memo of Understanding with the county Tourism and Visitor’s Bureau for use of the William Daniell House at 1070 Founders Boulevard off Daniells Bridge Road.

County Administrator Justin Kirouac told the Board that the Tourism and Visitors Bureau plans to move its Welcome Center from a leased storefront on Main Street in Watkinsville next to the Courthouse to the Daniells House.

The Bureau will be responsible for operation and maintenance costs for the building but will not pay any other fees for use of the property.

The terms of usage is for one year with automatic renewal for 50 years.

The Daniell House, according to former Oconee County Commission Chair Wendell Dawson, is one of the oldest if not the oldest house in Oconee County.

The county also took the first acts necessary to turn Hillsboro Road in North High Schools over to the city.

That first step, according to Oconee County Attorney Daniell Haygood, is for the county to inform North High Schools that it intends to abandon that portion of the road that lies within the city limits and ask the city if it wants to accept the roadway.

The Board put both the Memo of Understanding and the abandonment of Hillsboro Road on the consent agenda for approval at its regular Sept. 12 meeting.


The video below is on the Oconee County YouTube Channel.

Judge Norris begins his comments at 3:31 in the video.

Queen made his comments at 1:11:00 in the video.

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