Sentinel Probation faces an onslaught of cases threatening its stranglehold on probation services and questioning the legitimacy of its existence
The cases against Sentinel Probation Services are quickly piling up, and they could prove extremely costly for the private probation company, which operates in both Richmond and Columbia counties. Not only is Sentinel in the crosshairs of a lawsuit looking to find private probation unconstitutional, but several suits are also claiming that Sentinel does not have the proper authority to operate in Columbia County.
A class action suit was filed in Columbia County Superior Court on November 20 requesting that all funds collected by Sentinel during the years it was operating without a contract be returned to members of the class action together with interest and attorney’s fees.
The plaintiff in that case, Jacob Martin Glover, was sentenced on February 22, 2012, to a misdemeanor charge of theft by taking. He was fined $200 and required to pay various other fees as well as a $39 monthly probation fee.
The suit alleges that because Sentinel does not have a contract with the chief judge of the Superior Court of Columbia County that has been approved by the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, the probation fees charged by Sentinel should be refunded.
Georgia code requires such a contract for the privatization of probation services. Without the contract, the suit alleges Sentinel has no authority to operate as a probation company in Columbia County, and hasn’t since 2006.
Since a controversial move by the legislature in 2000, Georgia law allows local jurisdictions the option of either contracting with a private probation company or handling misdemeanor probation service themselves.
Felonies are automatically assigned to state probation officers who are generally highly regarded for their professionalism, their attention to detail and their understanding of the law.
The same cannot be said for Sentinel, however, which is almost universally regarded with disdain — and not just by those stuck in the system, which penalizes those who don’t have the money to pay off their fines by prolonging the pay off, therefore increasing the number of monthly fee payments that go to Sentinel.
Because private probation companies are for-profit businesses that make their money from charging fees for services — they call them offender-funded programs — critics maintain that there is no incentive for Sentinel to run a transparent, ethical operation. In fact, the opposite seems to be true.
In the case of Pamela Tennille, filed December 7, Sentinel allegedly added drug testing fees that were not part of the sentence, which then allowed them to charge more fees, resulting in the revocation of Tennille’s probation. She was arrested, released, then told to report to Sentinel the next day or risk another arrest warrant.
Attorney Jack Long, who represents both Tennille and Glover, contends that because Sentinel is not properly contracted, it is not authorized to pursue Tennille or have her locked up. Because of that, and because of Tennille’s fear that she could be arrested again for not appearing on December 6, Long submitted a consent order to Judge Danny Craig, who has been assigned all related cases against Sentinel, to prevent Sentinel from issuing any warrants or orders regarding her pending sentence.
According to Long, Craig did him one better. He not only drafted the consent order preventing Sentinel from contacting Tennille, he suggested that a referee be appointed to approve the issuance or execution of any misdemeanor probation warrant coming out of the Superior Court of Columbia County. If approved the way Long drafted it, the move would mean an individual, independent review of each misdemeanor probation warrant coming out of the county.
At press time, Craig had not yet issued a ruling.
With the hundreds of probation revocation warrants Sentinel has caused to be issued, that is a lucrative pipeline in serious jeopardy of drying up. It could also relieve taxpayers of the cost of jailing these offenders.
The cost of that taxpayer burden is clear in the case of Willie James Gilyard, who concluded his probation in 2008. Despite completing his probation, he was arrested and jailed in July 2010 because he did not report to the Sentinel office in December 2009.
The day after he was arrested, Gilyard suffered a medical emergency and was taken to the hospital.
Once incarcerated, health issues are paid for by the taxpayers.
In Gilyard’s case, he was arrested again on September 15 and was held until October 25. At a cost of nearly $50 a day, that jail time adds up.
In previous cases against Sentinel, Long has also introduced information showing that Sentinel employees receive bonuses on the company’s profitability, meaning that the scales of justice for those in the system are not fairly balanced.
“The court should not encourage loan sharking,” Long said.
On Tuesday, December 12, Long filed another complaint against Sentinel on behalf of Brandon Tyler Osborn, who pled guilty to misdemeanor theft by shoplifting on June 1, 2011 and received a fine and a year of unsupervised probation.
Despite the fact that the term of probation had expired on June 1, 2012, Sentinel signed a petition for modification/revocation of probation on September 18, 2012 and filed it in Columbia County Superior Court on October 9.
“They put him on a year’s probation, and that was up,” Long said. “And once his year’s probation is up, that’s it. They can sue you civilly, but they can not enforce it through the criminal process.”
Though Craig has not yet established the parameters of the class action lawsuit, Long said those who were jailed because of warrants issued by Sentinel will not be part of the suit.
“If [the warrants] have been executed and people come to us, we will probably file individual suits on their behalf,” Long said.
The theory behind that is that somebody who’s been arrested has suffered a loss of liberty and damages above the simple loss of money experienced by those who paid their supervision fees but were not jailed.
In spite of his zeal against the Sentinel operation, Long said he didn’t want to be too hard on the Superior Court judges, who mostly deal with felony cases and are perhaps mistakenly giving the Sentinel agents the same latitude they give the state agents.
“They are used to dealing with state probation people, who are absolutely professional,” he said. “A state probation person would not present an order to any judge if the probation had expired.”
Long thinks having former D.A. Craig hear his cases is potentially a good thing.
“There are a lot of people in society that need to be in jail,” he said. “Having a former district attorney who’s a judge is probably good. Danny has seen a lot of crime and he’s able to look at it in perspective.”
In other words, he is uniquely able to evaluate the cost and importance of jailing someone who is a threat to society versus someone who is simply too poor to be able to pay off his or her probation fees.
Given the long list of people who have suffered during the time Long alleges Sentinel has been operating in Columbia County without proper authority, Sentinel could be looking at some serious financial trouble in the near future.
“How many cases will be filed against Sentinel?” Long asked. “One hundred? Two hundred? I don’t know.” You Might Also Like: