Tell it to the judges

Judges are sentencing people who violate driving and other minor laws to probation, creating a system that collects money and supervises people who are not necessarily a threat to society.

Mike Popplewell is the owner of CSRA Probation, the firm contracted with Burke County and all of its cities to supervise citizens sentenced to probation for misdemeanor crimes, including driving-related offenses.

“There are only a few offenses in Georgia that can be considered less than a misdemeanor,” he said. “Good examples would be a seat belt violation or first offense underage consumption or possession of alcohol.”

Markiva is a Waynesboro resident whose sentence for an invalid vehicle registration included 12 months of probation. She doesn’t fully understand why she received such a harsh sentence for such a minor crime.

However, Georgia code specifically states that operating a vehicle without a valid registration is a misdemeanor offense. She was convicted after she called the police upon hitting a deer. She didn’t even own the vehicle by the time she went to court. It was totaled in the accident that happened the same month as her birthday. She lives in low-income housing and the fines she has to pay put such a financial burden on her, she is donating plasma just to make ends meet. A customer service job ended and she is seeking other employment. The first month of probation she paid $137. Next month, she has to pay $127. The total she owes in fines and probation fees is $1,298, she said. The vehicle was properly insured.

“In Georgia any crime that is punishable by possible jail time can be put on probation,” Popplewell said. “I have had people on probation for speeding.”

Cases that go through Magistrate Court or a city’s Municipal Court don’t necessarily go against a person’s record, however, the offender might still end up on probation. Popplewell gave the example of a company illegally placing their garbage in a Burke County dumpster.

The fines that are paid by the people put on probation go directly to the government entity that imposed the sentencing. Most of the probation fee goes directly to CSRA Probation. The standard probation fee is $59 per month. The counties and cities who contract with the probation company do not pay them for their services.

“As a private probation agency, we are also state regulated,” Popplewell said. “The State requires that for every fee that is assessed, there is a $9 Georgia Crime Victim Fee is assessed.”

CSRA Probation also offers jail release supervision, bond supervision and drug testing for a fee as well. Drug testing costs the person on probation an extra $20 per test.

Popplewell did not deny that overwhelmingly it is low-income people who get convicted and put on probation. It’s not uncommon for people who live in income-based housing, to seek better paying jobs in order to pay their probation, which in turn causes their rent to increase. When it comes to what a judge orders, the company’s hands are tied, Popplewell said. However, he said his probation officers try to work with people who are struggling to pay what is required of them.

“We are the middle man between the defendant and the court,” he said. “I don’t know that we have ever approached a judge to give some consideration to a probationer and a judge hasn’t done it.”

Popplewell admitted he has driven above the posted speed limit in his lifetime. Still, he defended the need for some speeders to be on probation, especially if they were driving many miles-per-hour over the speed limit. He also pointed out he has no control over what a judge decides. His company only supervises, but doesn’t make the decision of who gets sentenced to probation. Still, he said he has personally witnessed sentences he thought were too harsh. Probation companies get a bad rap because they get blamed for the conditions the court imposes, he said.

“There are as many traffic fatalities for speeding as DUI’s,” he said. “It’s the court decision and the legislature that sets the rules.”

Popplewell said he grew up in a trailer park in South Carolina and could have very easily found himself on the “other side of the fence.” His childhood experience gives him the ability to empathize with people placed on probation. Consequently, he tries to promote that empathy throughout his company. CSRA Probation employees receive training that stresses his core values.

Currently there are less than 300 people sentenced to misdemeanor probation in Burke County, Popplewell said. The pandemic brought a decrease while courts shut down. However, that could now change.

In addition, the Burke County Sheriff’s Office is now patrolling Midville. The city will hold its second court session with the new municipal judge April 29. There are currently 36 citations to be addressed, up from nine last month and zero before the BCSO began patrolling.

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