AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Mike Popplewell had no idea he'd be running a private probation company — let alone Georgia's largest — when he took job as a rank-and-file state probation officer nearly four decades ago.
His CSRA Probation Services, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary, now has more than 150 employees at 33 offices around the state. The 60-year-old south Augusta-reared businessman also has become something of a consultant to the growing national industry, which supervises misdemeanor probationers for courts in nearly a dozen states.
"I never dreamed I'd be flying all over the country helping other companies," Popplewell said. "I always thought I'd just be the local guy with a local business."
And for most of the company's history, "local" is all it was. But the for-profit probation industry's implosion in Georgia in recent years because of contested practices by large national companies — most notably California-based Sentinel Offender Services — has landed CSRA Probation Services state court contracts in roughly one-third of Georgia's 159 counties.
Popplewell acquired Sentinel's former operations after it pulled out of Georgia in 2017, one of four acquisitions since 2014, including Providence Community Corrections, a Tennessee firm once owned by one of the nation's largest health care companies.
Sentinel was successfully sued by several indigent probationers jailed for not paying the company's monthly supervision and monitoring fees, most famously by an unemployed Augusta man who fell behind on more than $1,000 in fines and fees stemming from shoplifting a $2 can of beer from a convenience store.
Since the crackdown on what private-probation critics call predatory practices through state legislation in 2015, the number of companies has fallen from nearly 40 to 22 — all of which are small and mid-size Georgia-based companies such as Popplewell's.
Popplewell said he considered eliminating the "CSRA" from his company name to reflect its larger footprint, but he said he didn't want to lose the "ethics and integrity" the name has built during the past 20 years.
"I have what I think is the most unique perspective in the industry, and that is customer service," Popplewell said. "A customer is someone who receives services and pays for them. Our probationers are customers. For the most part, we are dealing with regular people just like me and you."
With one in nearly 16 adults on probation, Georgia has the nation's largest probation population and is quadruple the national average; partly because the state treats all infractions — including traffic tickets — as misdemeanors that can carry fines of up to $1,000 and one year in jail.
The state began outsourcing misdemeanor probation in the 1990s as a way to cut costs — incarceration costs taxpayers roughly $50 a day per inmate — and focus its manpower on felony probationers. The "offender-funded" probation system gives people more time to pay off tickets and avoid jail time, but enables private companies to assess monthly fees and charges for drug testing, electronic monitoring and other mandates. Popplewell's company's basic supervision fee is $35 a month.
Profit motive is what led to abuses against indigent probationers by companies such as Sentinel, said industry critic and Augusta attorney Jack Long, who represented several Sentinel plaintiffs.
"I will say that Mike Popplewell operates a private probation company that is a lot better than Sentinel, and that he does not rough-handle the people on probation," he said. "But I will also say that I do not believe courts should outsource part of the judicial branch to a private company."
A 2014 study by New York-based Human Rights Watch estimated Georgia's private probation fees at $40 million.
Popplewell said his company's primary goal is getting people to successfully complete the terms of their probation, which he said happens roughly 85 percent of the time.
"We're not dealing with murders and rapists," said Popplewell, who earned a degree in psychology from Augusta University. "These are people who have never been in trouble before and they'll never be in trouble again. They're embarrassed they made a dumb mistake and they learn their lesson."
At the other end of the spectrum, he said, are people who willfully disregard the terms of their sentences.
"There is a group of people that will never succeed on probation," he said. "These are people who would not make it if Jesus Christ was their probation officer."
If Popplewell seems more attuned to challenges low-income probationers face, it's because he used to be poor himself. The Glenn Hills High School graduate grew up in a trailer park off Milledgeville Road, the son of a construction worker with a third-grade education.
"I've been blessed to live a life I never thought I'd have," he said. "I see my job as a mission — I really do. I know it sounds corny, but I do believe in helping people because where I grew up, I just saw so many people go to prison or get killed."
Popplewell started the company in 1997 after 18 years as a state probation officer working in the Thomson-based Toombs Judicial Circuit. Today his company contracts with that circuit and 170 courts around the state, which have the option of outsourcing misdemeanor probation or operating in-house departments. Popplewell said he is currently negotiating contracts with 10 courts.
Richmond County created an in-house department after problems with Sentinel in 2016, though other courts in the Augusta Judicial Circuit, including Burke and Columbia counties use CSRA Probation Services.
"Our experience with CSRA Probation Services has been a good one," said Augusta Superior Court Chief Judge Carl C. Brown Jr. "They have been in a contract with us, and we renewed the contract based in part on their performance and our sanctification."
Popplewell said the most common probation violation is repeated failure to report to a probation officer. He said his company makes it easy for people to report without having to take time off work through a smartphone app that enables them to videoconference with their officer and make payments online.
"The single most important element to successful probation is communication," he said. "Even though there's a perception through media attention that people are getting thrown in jail left and right for not paying their fees, the reality is more warrants are issued for failure to report than any other reason."
Popplewell's office in Evans, like his others across the state, displays resource material for people in need of help finding a job, seeking substance abuse counseling or help obtaining their GED.
"We want to help people get their lives on track," he said. "The probation officer and the probationer are looking for the same thing: to get through this as quickly and easily as possible."
Information from: The Augusta Chronicle , http://www.augustachronicle.com