Sentinel Pulls Out of Richmond and Columbia County Superior Court as More Released from Jail
By: Eric Johnson
In a statement issued Thursday, December 20, Mark Contestabile, chief business development officer for Sentinel Offender Services, announced that the private probation company was severing its ties with the Superior Courts of Richmond and Columbia Counties.
“Sentinel has provided continuous probation services to the Superior Courts of Richmond and Columbia Counties since 2000,” the statement said. “For twelve years, it has worked closely with the Judges of the Superior Courts to assist with the administration of justice.”
As the Spirit has reported, Sentinel had been hit with several lawsuits challenging its authority to administer probation services in Columbia County, including a class action suit demanding the return of supervision fees to those who had been under Sentinel supervision.
The class action suit, as well as several other lawsuits dealing with individuals who had been arrested for probation violations, allege that Sentinel did not have a valid contract under the terms of the Georgia Code.
On Monday, December 17, three days before Sentinel’s announcement that it was cutting ties with Superior Court, Judge Danny Craig issued an order releasing several individuals who were incarcerated on Warrants to Arrest Probationers. On Friday, December 21, Craig modified a draft order by Sentinel releasing 12 more individuals, some of whom were being held on Columbia County warrants in other counties.
All this comes after a letter sent by Sentinel attorney Jim Ellison to Judge Craig a day before meeting scheduled to iron out how to deal with the cases assigned to Sentinel while the civil actions were being handled, threatening to leave if the contract submitted to Judge Overstreet was not signed.
“In light of the allegations raised by the plaintiffs’ attorneys in these lawsuits, and upon the most careful consideration of the issue, Sentinel believes that the best way to protect all interested parties from further allegations by the plaintiffs’ attorneys is for it to simply obtain a new contract with the Superior Court,” the letter stated. “If the Court has not signed a new contract with Sentinel by the morning of Wednesday, December 19, 2012, Sentinel will be left with no choice except to suspend its operations in the Superior Courts of Richmond and Columbia County.”
The battle for and against private probation in Richmond and Columbia counties has become more heated by the day, with so much volleying back and forth that it sometimes seems more like an artillery battle than a legal battle.
But the stakes couldn’t be higher.
On one hand you’ve got the fundamental right of personal liberty — the right not to be incarcerated because of an inability to pay a debt — that some say is being infringed upon by private probation’s ability to use incarceration as an incentive to pay.
On the other hand, you have the right of a private company to be able to do business, however unseemly that business might seem to some.
And the probation business is certainly plenty unseemly.
Over the course of the last few weeks, the Spirit has exposed many of its questionable practices, from a wholesale lack of accountability that leaves those on probation vulnerable to the whims of the low-paid employees of the private probation company — in this case, Sentinel Offender Services — as well as the low paid Recreation Department employees who supervise their community service with a virtually unchecked ability to add or subtract or lose altogether evidence of that community service.
We’ve reported on specific people caught in that vortex and talked to those in other communities who have grown suspect of private probation’s lack of accountability not only with probationers, but with the communities that hire them to provide a service. It’s unseemly, but is it illegal?
Attorney Jack Long thinks it is, and along with attorney John Bell, he’s launched a multi-front assault that has gotten Sentinel’s attention, first with the challenge to private probation’s constitutionality and then with a challenge to Sentinel’s ability to act as a private probation company in Columbia County.
That particular battle started with a class action suit filed on November 20 alleging that because the contract required by Georgia Code doesn’t exist — it was never signed by the commission — Sentinel hasn’t been legally operating as a probation company.
That is an issue that so far Sentinel lawyers have not yet publically challenged.
To protect the rights of those in the system — those in danger of being arrested on probation violation warrants — Judge Danny Craig, who by local rule is hearing all cases related to the primary case involving Sentinel, signed an order appointing a referee, meaning that the execution of any misdemeanor probation warrant coming out of the Superior Court of Columbia County would have to be approved by him.
That order was part of a plan agreed to by the parties involved to find an orderly resolution to a knotty problem, but it was far from the last word.
On Monday, December 17, Judge Craig signed an order as submitted by Sentinel attorney Jim Ellington releasing more than 20 people incarcerated for probation violations in Columbia County.
“In order to preserve to the parties their right to a fair and orderly adjudication of the issues in this case and related civil cases and in recognition of the dispute as to certain warrants issued by the County with regard to probationers who have been placed on probation supervised by Sentinel, which warrants have been executed, the court herby orders that the following individuals are to be released immediately on any Warrant to Arrest Probationer arising from a violation of a condition of probation issued in the case numbers set forth below,” his order reads, followed by a list of names and case numbers.
Such a large get out of jail free card is rare, but those who oppose misdemeanor private probation would argue that such an exodus is not the threat to society it might first appear. Misdemeanor violations tend to be minor and often the reason for probation violations stems from an inability to pay the fines assigned by the court and the fees assessed by Sentinel.
Now, rumors are swirling throughout the legal community that Sentinel filed nine arrest warrants in Columbia County that same day, then asked to have them recalled. Whether that is simply a miscommunication or a hardball tactic remains to be seen.
In addition, speculation is also high regarding the role of the referee now that Judge Craig has issued the order to release those incarcerated in Columbia County for probation violations. That order would seemingly leave the referee with nothing to do, yet at press time, no order has yet been filed relieving him of his duties. Given the fact that the issue of whether Sentinel has a valid contract to legally operate in Columbia County has yet to be resolved, there is still the very large outstanding issue of who is authorized to run the probation service, collect fines and supervise the conditions of probation, since cases are continuing to be tried and people will continue to be placed on probation. You Might Also Like: