Sentinel to have its day in court
Having successfully driven Sentinel Offender Services out of Richmond and Columbia County’s Superior Courts, attorney Jack Long is attempting to further cripple the for-profit probation company’s ability to make a profit by asking the court to find its application of electronic monitoring unlawful.
On Friday, January 25, Long is bringing four separate habeas corpus cases before Judge Danny Craig. All allege that, among other things, the petitioners have been unlawfully detained because of their inability to pay for electronic monitoring, an extra service offered by Sentinel that, like other services it provides, is paid for by the offenders themselves.
Long argues that state code does not allow for the use of electronic monitoring in misdemeanor cases.
Though a writ of habeas corpus is a legal action that brings an incarcerated person before a judge, thus ensuring that the person can be released if that person can show insufficient cause for detainment, one of the petitioners, Virginia Cash, was released by Judge David Watkins last week. Nevertheless, Long is including Cash in the action, contending that, since she was released on condition that she pay a fee she maintains she is unable to pay, her freedom is a formality.
Watkins, who revoked the petitioners’ probations in each of the cases, has a reputation for making electronic monitoring a condition of probation as well as being unforgiving of those who can’t afford to pay for it. Because the cost of Sentinel’s services are passed on to the offenders, the extra financial burden becomes costly for them as well as for area taxpayers, who fork over $48 a day when people like Virginia Cash are locked up because they can’t afford to pay.
Cash has a long history with Watkins.
“The first time I went in front of him for failing a drug test, it was the very first one I ever failed,” she says. “My daddy stood up for me and tried to help me out, and he was like, ‘What do you have to say for her — she’s a drug addict.’ I thought that was uncalled for — he treats me like I’m the scum of the earth.”
It’s also not the first time he’s had her locked up for not being able to pay.
“One time in 2010, I went in front of him and he wanted $1,000 and I said I couldn’t come up with that and he told me I’d do a year in jail,” she says. “And I did six months. Six months of my life was taken away over $1,000.”
After she served the six months, she says she asked her probation officer about how they put that toward her fine, but received no answer.
“I wanted to see it on paper — I just spent six months in jail,” she says. “They said it was in there, but I never got to see proof that they actually applied it.”
There is little doubt that Cash has problems. She is unemployed, owes child support for her oldest child and is responsible for her youngest. She doesn’t have a stable home to go to and she admits to having addiction issues, but insists the burdens of the system she’s caught in are making it next to impossible for her to turn her life around. She finds the threats continually leveled at her freedom by her probation officers because of her inability to pay particularly disheartening.
“Right before I went in and failed the drug test, which ended up being part of the reason why they took the warrant out, they were already pressing me with taking me back in front of [Watkins] because I hadn’t made a payment,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Please don’t do that,’ because I knew if I went back in front of him I was going to end up back in jail.”
Not only did her probation officer threaten her with jail for not paying her fine, but she even refused to allow Cash to receive help provided to her by Judge Craig.
Craig runs Problem Solving Court which attempts to help overwhelmed offenders manage some of their burdens, many of which interfere with each other.
“I went in front of Judge Craig and he said, ‘I’m going to help you with this,’” she says. “He didn’t see any point in me being in jail when I just needed extra help and he told me not to worry about it, that he was going to handle it and they would be in touch in about a week or two so that I could know when to go back to misdemeanor probation.”
But that never happened.
“Judge Watkins refused to let him do anything like that,” she says. “I ended up going back up in front of Judge Craig, and he told me that he didn’t know why, but he couldn’t do anything about misdemeanor probation.”
Cash’s probation officer also refused to let a Problem Solving Court representative accompany her to her probation meeting.
“I struggle with addiction, yes,” Cash says. “But I don’t need to be thrown in jail. I need something more than that.”
In Cash’s case, as with the other three, Long is contending that Georgia code allows electronic monitoring only by the Department of Corrections, and since the Department of Corrections only handles felony probation, electronic monitoring is not allowed for misdemeanor probation.
“If they wanted to make it applicable, they would have said that,” Long says. “There is no provision at all that allows specific electronic monitoring.”
He is also attempting to show that, as a profit-making company, Sentinel is allowing its own financial interests to infringe upon the rights of the probationers.
The costs of electronic monitoring are especially burdensome to poor offenders because, besides having to pay the $80 start-up fee and a monthly charge for the service, they are also required to provide a separate landline to allow the device to operate.
The cases also allege that charging electronic monitoring fees serves only to benefit Sentinel and that the electronic monitoring is “nothing but a means of making poor individuals pay fees that inure to the benefit of Respondent Sentinel.”
Though many find it hard to sympathize with those who find themselves in jail, the ultimatum given by Judge Watkins in these specific cases — either pay the electronic monitoring fee or go to jail — puts the taxpayers on the hook for serious money: for Cash, who was allowed to pay $535 or spend five months in jail, $7,200; for Clifford Hayes, who was told he had to spend eight months in jail or pay $854: $11,520.
These cases are bringing a lot of the private probation issues into the courtroom, and how Craig rules could significantly alter the way probation is handled, both locally and statewide. For Sentinel in particular, the stakes are very high. You Might Also Like: