Critics allege private probation companies are expensive, abusive and dehumanizing. A couple of Augusta attorneys are trying to prove they’re unconstitutional as well.
Hills McGee is a disabled veteran suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder whose only source of income is $245 a month.
He does not own a car. He does not own a house. He lives in a shanty off Gordon Highway.
McGee commits the crime of being plain drunk. He does his community service, but doesn’t have the money to pay the fine, so the judge converts his fine to community service, which he completes. But he doesn’t pay the $186 in probation fees due Sentinel Offender Services, the private probation company used by Richmond County for misdemeanor probation, so Sentinel goes before the judge, gets a warrant for McGee’s arrest, and three or four months later, McGee is picked up.
He’s told he’s entitled to a public defender, but there’s a $50 application fee. That fee can be waived, but according to Lyndsey Hix, who was employed by the public defender’s office, he’s basically run through the system “like an animal.” She testified the entire revocation hearing took 30 seconds. Besides that, he’s got significant challenges, including not being able to read without his glasses. He doesn’t have his glasses, so he pleads no contest before the judge, who says he can either pay the $186 or go to jail for 60 days.
Still lacking the money, the judge locks him up.
At this point, attorneys Jack Long and John Bell get involved. Long files a writ of habeas corpus, a legal action that allows McGee to be brought before a judge to determine whether or not he’s being illegally detained.
The case goes before Judge Michael Annis, who orders McGee immediately released, finding fundamental problems with his incarceration.
Long was impressed by Annis’ understanding of the case.
“The court… concludes that the continued confinement of the Petitioner (McGee) in the Richmond County jail is unlawful,” he wrote in McGee’s release. “No person should be in jail for the sole reason that he or she is indigent. The Petitioner did not have the ability to pay the $186 in fees due Sentinel and there could therefore not be a willful violation of that requirement.”
Though there are complex issues involved, for Long, it comes down to something very simple.
“I think it’s wrong to lock someone up because they’re poor,” he says. “You can not put people in jail because they’re poor, nor can you use jail as a means of collecting debt. That’s pretty axiomatic in our society.”
Sentinel is a for-profit company that charges probationers fees for handling probation service for the court, and Long maintains it’s bad policy to privatize part of the judicial system that can have a person locked up.
“Suppose we did this for deputy sheriffs,” he says. “Suppose we said, ‘We’re not going to pay the road patrol people any more salaries, but we will give you 20 percent of the take on every ticket you write.’ If I came up with that concept, the public would be in an uproar. Plus, it would be unconstitutional.”
Long says the state has had various incentive systems that have been struck down, including a turnkey system where the jails got paid every time they turned the key, and one where judges were paid a fee for issuing a search warrant.
In the end, the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional, saying the judicial branch of the government could not be paid an incentive fee to have people arrested.
“So John and I have taken the position before the 11th Circuit court that having a private company that’s being paid a fee by the judicial system is the same thing,” Long says. “They’re using the warrant and the jail system as the means of collecting that fee.”
In other words, if Master Card can’t lock you up for not paying your bill — and they can’t — why should Sentinel be able to do it?
“Your freedom, your ability to say, ‘I am going to go home and watch a ballgame tonight and drink a beer or whatever’ — it’s hard to put a price on that freedom,” Long says. “That’s one thing in America. We’re supposed to be the land of the free, but unfortunately, when we have private industry that can lock you up, it’s not very free.”
Though not all probation is privately run, since 2000, Georgia law gives local jurisdictions the option to either contract with a private company to handle misdemeanor probations or run the probation service themselves.
Felonies, on the other hand, are assigned to state probation officers, who are part of the State Department of Corrections. According to Long, these state probation officers are very professional and work hard to keep probationers out of jail and on the straight and narrow, something that benefits the probationer, society and the taxpayers, since housing inmates is an expensive proposition funded by taxpayers.
“You’re a good probation officer if you have somebody for a nonviolent crime, keep him on probation, he does whatever the probation is and he pays the fine and doesn’t go into the prison system,” he says. “The Superior Court judge and the state probation officer are trying to save the taxpayers money and at the same time make sure people aren’t running amok.”
Private probation, however, is a different story.
“They have two masters,” Long says. “They’re supposed to be officers of the court, yet they are employees of a profit-making company, and that profit-making company is interested in selling as many services as possible.”
Sentinel markets many services, including forms of electronic monitoring, which are offender-funded, meaning that in addition to the fines established by the court, offenders can find themselves stuck in a vortex of fees that prevents them from ever moving forward.
Often, Sentinel will request that probation runs consecutive rather than concurrent, Long says, which means that Sentinel has 24 months of fees it can collect rather than 12.
Those fees can be a substantial burden to people already struggling through a difficult situation.
“If I represent someone in a misdemeanor, I’ll say, ‘Look — go borrow from a loan shark, a payday lender or anybody you can. Pay those bastards off, get your community service done immediately or you’re going to have to pay them $41 a month,’” Long says.
Not understanding the system and not having the money to immediately pay off the fines means not all probationers are affected in the same way.
“I can buy my way out of the system,” Long says, “where that guy — once he’s in the system, he never gets out. Most people don’t understand the system and they’re thrown in and the next thing they know, they’re on 24-month probation, which is fine until someone loses a job and they can’t pay the money and they are locked up for not paying the fine. Then the Sheriff’s Office gets to incur a $50 a day cost for locking him up.”
According to Richmond County’s chief jailer, Major Gene Johnson, the cost is closer to $48, but whatever the cost, when Sentinel has a probation revoked, it’s the taxpayers who pay the bills.
“It puts a burden on the jail as far as when they owe some money,” Johnson says. “If they haven’t paid the startup fee for the ankle monitor or something like that, then they sit awhile before they go to court, and that’s a burden on the taxpayers of Richmond County, because you’re talking about $48 a day to house each one of those inmates.”
There is no distinction between whether that $48 is going to house a murderer or someone who didn’t pay a fine or someone, like Hills McGee, who didn’t pay his fees. Bell maintains that most of those jailed for probation violations are minor offenders who are soon going to be back out on the street again, anyway.
And because every inmate is entitled to healthcare, critics of private probation say loading the jail with minor offenders is like spinning a dangerous roulette wheel. Though Johnson did not have the current statistics available when he spoke with the Metro Spirit, when he testified at McGee’s habeas corpus hearing on January 27, 2010, 132 of the 992 inmates had been revoked on probation.
“Last year we paid $4.2 million for a medical contractor to come in here, and anything over the cap on that, we have to pay,” Johnson says. “This year, we’re close to $5 million.”
According to Sheriff Ronnie Strength, roughly a third of his budget is earmarked for jail operations.
“It runs $16 or $17 million a year,” he says.
Johnson, who’s put in 47 years with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, 31 at the jail, remembers what it was like before private probation.
“In the long run, I think it would save the county money [to go back to county probation], because you wouldn’t be tacking the fee on for the private probation charges,” he says. “They might owe $50 in fines and $150 in fees, but there’s no way for us to know how much is fine and how much is fee.”
It’s a question of practicality, he says.
“I’m not a bleeding heart, but I try to look after the taxpayers’ money and look after how to stay within our budget the best I can,” he says.
After years of using private probation companies, Athens-Clarke County judges decided they didn’t have enough accountability, and in 2007 they took it to the mayor and the commission and they voted to bring it back in-house.
“There were two major things that Athens-Clarke County wanted,” says Dale Allen, chief probation officer of Athens-Clarke County. “They wanted accountability — which would include financial accountability but not focus solely on money — and they wanted all our officers to be sworn officers.”
Allen’s office has 15 officers, all of whom have arrest powers.
“That gives us a lot more leeway to go out and do home checks and field visits, whereas private probation didn’t have that because they weren’t sworn,” he says.
Of the two basic probation models, compliance and rehabilitation, Allen considers his approach to be blended.
“First of all, we demand compliance with your probation,” he says. “Second, we’ll try to get you any help possible if you want that help. But I don’t have a bunch of social workers working for me. We don’t have the time to sit here and be a full rehabilitation model.”
He admits that compliance deals with money, but insists it’s not money.
“Governments fine folks when they put them on probation, and the probationers are expected to pay their fines unless there’s a reason why they can’t,” he says. “I’ve been in probation about 10 years, and I’ve never seen a single one of these judges sitting on the bench say, ‘We’ll put you in jail just for money.’ That’s just not going to happen.”
Allen conducts a financial assessment to make sure those who claim they can’t pay actually can’t, then starts working on a plan to get them through their probation.
“I can waive supervision fees,” he says. “The judges do not care about my supervision fees. My supervision fees are nice and they help the government operate, but if you’re truly indigent and having financial problems, it’s the first one that can go easily. That’s where I think you’ve got a huge difference between private and government. Private can’t do that because that’s their profit.”
He says that while private probation has weaknesses, it’s not necessarily shady by nature.
“It really comes down to their work ethic and their corporate philosophy,” he says. “Are you going to arrest people for money and force them to pay the money, which I don’t think is ethical whichever way you go, government or private, or are you just trying to enforce all the conditions?”
If a probationer is paying everything on time and doing what he’s supposed to be doing, things run smoothly no matter who is running the program. But if a probationer misses a few payments, things have the potential to spiral out of control and avoid oversight.
“If you’re behind three or four months on supervision fees and three or four months on fine payments and you come in with $400 in cash, where’s that money going?” he asks. “I’m fully transparent and all my books and cases are open, but private probation, unless it’s in the contract they’ve made with the government — their books aren’t open for review.”
At any one time Allen has around 3,000 cases, and he says he’s paid for himself the last four years.
“Last year’s budget was $840,000, and we brought in about $850,000,” he says. “And we came in about $10,000 under budget, so we were about $20,000 to the good. And that’s still with running it with a heart and with ethics.”
Though the Spirit has been in contact with several people, including Sentinel employees who eventually proved unwilling to talk, the story of W.T. stands out.
When W.T. met with the Metro Spirit he was finishing up the final 20 hours of community service for a second DUI offense. He also owed $4,000 in fines.
“My probation officer lets me do reporting by mail,” he says. “I’ve got a form that basically says my name, my social security number, how many hours of community service I completed and how much I paid this month.”
He faxes the form to Sentinel, and that serves as his report.
“That fax I send is a $45 piece of paper,” he says, referring to the fee he’s paying to Sentinel. “She never physically sees me.”
He says he feels that his freedom is something that can be snatched away at any time.
“My minimum payment a month is $185,” he says. “Let’s say I only bring her $100. That’s $85 light. She could revoke me.”
He tells the story of a guy who said he served 240 hours worth of community service when Sentinel lost the report establishing his hours, which meant the guy had to start over from zero.
Besides being defeating and an inconvenience, starting over also meant the guy had to continue paying Sentinel the monthly probation fee.
While such a story is anecdotal, Long says that any conversation involving Sentinel involves similar horror stories.
“Unfortunately, when it comes to Sentinel, you might knock out 20 percent, but 80 percent of them are valid.”
Though W.T. mostly reports to his probation officer via fax, he’s no stranger to the drab Sentinel office near the law enforcement center on Walton Way.
“You’re treated like scum,” he says. “You sign in and wait for a minimum of an hour. A minimum. If your appointment is at 3, you will see the lady between 4 and 4:30. She screams your name out and you go back there, you sit at her desk, she asks you about five questions and you answer them. You wait an hour and a half to be seen for three minutes.”
Like many probationers, W.T. works off his community service at a Richmond County recreational facility. He chose the facility because he’s known the manager for years, and though that works to his benefit — W.T. claims he works only one hour for every three his friend logs — he realizes that the relationship still leaves him at risk.
Desperate, vulnerable people plus low-paid, largely unsupervised employees equals a recipe for abuse.
“I’ve heard stories of girls giving up the booty to get out of hours,” he says. “I’ve heard of money. I’ve heard any range. It’s crazy.”
In March, a Sentinel assistant branch manager in Lawrenceville was charged with accepting money from probationers and not applying it to the money owed and to falsifying work times.
“You’ve got to remember, this guy is just like a probation officer,” he says. “My financial livelihood and my freedom is based on an $11 an hour probation officer and a $22,000 a year salaried employee at the Rec Department. Those two people have my balls in their hands.”
Spend any time around the Sentinel office and you’ll hear stories of oversight and abuse and outright mistakes, though perhaps none as egregious as the story of Kathleen Hucks, who was jailed this Labor Day weekend for violating the terms of a probation that ended four years earlier.
Hucks was held at the Columbia County jail until her husband could pay Sentinel $157, which wasn’t until September 20.
Long is also trying this case, and questions whether Sentinel even has the authority to operate in Columbia County.
In a letter dated November 8, County Clerk Erin Hall replied to Long’s request for a contract between Sentinel and the Board of Commissioners with a letter stating that she could not find where any such agreement had been approved by the Columbia County Commission.
According to Georgia Code, a private probation contract must be approved by the judge and the county commission.
“If they don’t have a contract, they have no basis for collecting a dime or acting as a probation officer,” Long says.
For Long, who says he’s investigating a desk full of allegations against Sentinel, it comes down to the desire for accountability expressed by the judges in Athens-Clarke County.
“The people who make decisions to lock you up need to be accountable to a governmental agency,” he says. “The people who pick up our trash — if they want to outsource that, that’s fine. But there’s a big distinction. The man picking up my trash can not put my ass in jail.” You Might Also Like: