Misdemeanor Fee-based Probation Tolling Ends after Georgia Supreme Court Ruling

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hugh thompson(APN) ATLANTA — The Supreme Court of Georgia unanimously ruled, on November 24, 2014, that courts are prohibited from lengthening a person’s misdemeanor sentence beyond what was originally ordered by the sentencing court.  The opinion was written by Chief Justice Hugh Thompson.

 

The Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s finding that private probation companies do not have the legal authority to put fee collections on hold–a practice called tolling–or extend a probation sentence.  There is a maximum sentence of twelve months for a misdemeanor conviction.

 

At least 25,000 Georgia misdemeanor probationers–many of whom are low-income and have difficulty paying fines–are impacted by the ruling.

 

The high court ruling stems from an earlier case from the Augusta Judicial Circuit back in 2012 [Sentinel Offender Services, LLC., v. Glover et al, (S14A1033 and S14X1036 et al.)].

 

In those cases, Jacob Martin Glover and twelve other plaintiffs sued Sentinel to recover fees they had paid, claiming that Sentinel did not have a valid contract with Richmond and Columbia Counties and violated their due process rights.

 

John Bell, an attorney for the Plaintiffs, explained to Atlanta Progressive News how private probation companies use “tolling” to exploit poor people on probation and also taxpayers.

 

“They like to lock people up and get the jail to enforce the debt,” Bell told APN.

 

Bell continued to explain that if a person cannot pay a debt, even a small debt, a warrant is issued saying the person has absconded when they have not, in fact, gone anywhere.

 

The warrant just sits there until the person gets a minor traffic violation or something else; it could be years later.  Then the warrant pops up, so the person is hauled into jail and locked up on the outstanding warrant.  It costs the jail about fifty dollars a day to keep the person in jail and if the person has a job, he or she may lose it, or even their apartment.

 

“They have been locking people up because they are poor.  The Supreme Court says that is wrong and has made a major step in eradicating that practice,” Bell said.

 

The transfer of misdemeanor probation supervision from the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) to for-profit private companies came about in 2000.

 

It was then that the Georgia Legislature passed a bill that made it constitutional for state courts to contract with private probation companies for the supervision of people on probation for misdemeanors.

The Plaintiffs, in the Sentinel case, questioned the constitutionality of the state law that allows counties to contract with private probation companies.

 

They also questioned allowing private companies’ employees to act as officers of the court–when their loyalty is to their employer–using threat of jail to collect fees, putting people in jail who could not pay the probation fees, and extending sentences beyond the term ordered by the court.

 

The Plaintiffs argued Sentinel’s revenues are tied to how long people are kept on probation with many conditions tied to the probation.  Probationers often must pay for electronic monitoring, and drug and alcohol testing.

 

They claimed the courts improperly imposed electronic monitoring at Sentinel’s urging, and from which Sentinel profited.

 

The Supreme Court ruled that judges do have the authority to impose electronic monitoring on misdemeanor defendants as a condition of probation.  They also found that the Plaintiffs were not harmed by the private probation company, but rather from wrongful acts allegedly committed by Sentinel employees.

 

“Under Georgia law, a private probation company can act as a probation provider and its employees may serve as probation officers only if the company complies with the terms and provision of the private probation statute [Official Code of Georgia 42-8-100],” the ruling states.

 

In Columbia County, there was never an approved valid contract for probation services between Sentinel and the Columbia County governing authority.  Therefore, they had no right to collect probation supervision fees from the plaintiffs, the opinion states.  However, in Richmond County there was a valid contract.

 

The Supreme Court is sending the case back to the trial court, with directions to resolve several issues, including which individual probationers have the right to recover fees from Sentinel that the company was never authorized to collect, the opinion says.

 

The Plaintiffs sought to establish a class for a class action lawsuit, which could allow non-parties to the lawsuit to become parties, and thus recover back-fees from Sentinel as well.

 

“I like the decision.  I think it is very scholarly and well-written,” Bell said.

 

The largest of the private probation companies is Sentinel.  They originally began operating in Georgia.  Today, Georgia has over sixty-five percent of Sentinel operations; and more than seventy percent of their staff resides in Georgia.  The total number of Georgia courts using Sentinel are over ninety.  In 2012, they had gross revenues of more than 5.5 million dollars.

 

It is a private company mainly owned by Robert Contestabile and his son Mark.  Robert was the president of Wackenhut Monitoring Services, which he later purchased and renamed Sentinel.

 

Private probation companies will be lobbying hard when the Legislature goes back into session for favorable laws that benefit their financial bottom line.

 

“The fight is not over.  The next phase will be [private probation companies’] efforts to purchase the Legislature,” Bell predicted.

 

As previously reported by APN, last year the legislature passed, HB 837, to expand authority for private probation companies.  Fortunately, Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the bill, saying it lacked transparency and would keep secret how many people the private companies supervise and how much money they collect in fines.

 

http://atlantaprogressivenews.com/2014/04/18/gov-deal-may-veto-bill-expanding-private-probation-debtors-prisons-in-georgia/

 

Sentinel is a part of the mass incarceration industry that specializes in poverty capitalism or making profits off of poor people by shifting costs of essential government services to the poor.

 

“Cash register justice is bad justice.  These private probation systems see how much money they can take out of poor people.  They care little about the more esoteric aspects of helping people placed on probation,” Bell said.

 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) cites a case in Georgia where a man stole a can of beer and was fined two hundred dollars.  He was ultimately jailed for failing to pay over a thousand dollars in fees to his probation company.  His entire income from selling his blood plasma was less than what he was being charged monthly in probation fees.

 

HRW cites another case where a probation officer in Georgia told how she obtains the arrest of offenders who fall behind on their payments: she tells family members that it is up to them whether their relative comes home that night or spends the week in jail awaiting a probation revocation hearing that could land him or her behind bars for weeks or months.

 

For an in depth analysis HRW 2014 report, Profiting from Probation, can be accessed at the link below.

 

http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us0214_ForUpload_0.pdf

 

(END/2014)

13 comments

  • Dog bless the Corporate Untied Asstates of AmeriKKKa and the profits for which it stands. One corporation, indivisible, ruling with misery & injustice for all (except the rich).

    • Government by the rich for the rich.
      Plenty of money to be made in monitoring devices, too, so our legislators will no doubt keep expanding access to that “market”.

  • Yes, we have a prison economy. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other place on the planet and Georgia and Texas are at the top of the list putting people in jail. The homeless, poor, mentally ill and addicts should not be warehoused in prison. We should have social programs to help them overcome their situation. It cost more taxpayer money to put our citizens in prison than it would to send them through college. Our priorities are wrong.

  • Fred Flintstone

    So, if a person receives one year of misdemeanor probation (which is run through a private probation company) in Georgia and goes “awol” for one year and a day from the sentencing date(while having no contact at all with law enforcement during that time) their probation ends despite never doing any community service, paying their fine, doing drug classes, etc? Someone please lmk soon bc my friend is concerned he’s doing the wrong thing by skipping out but his attorney advised him to disappear if he can’t comply/pay the fines/get to the twice weekly drug tests and such. “Land of the free” my ass. Drop the “r”, this is more accurately the “land of the fee”.

    • Forgive and forget. It’s a christainly proverb and principle.

      If a person can’t achieve repentance, remorse, or regret after adjudication; there’s not much reason is there to redeem or remit?

      Venom and redemption can not mix in reunification and rehabilitation

    • That is bad advice , I have been dealing with this bs for years over some mistake in 2011 , the agent at sentinel ( they are not cops, I refuse to call mine an officer she is just a bitter hateful c u Next Tuesday. But they can’t do anything as long as he shows up and pays “ what he can” and that’s it , my agent who should jump in the lake , put out a warrant so he has to face that music but if he gets a lawyer or just shows the court he did Everything I’m his power to comply then show proof, bills , pay stubs , etc…..also the lady I had was put to get me so I filed a complaint with the court which he should do right away and you can research where to write it by google “know your rights private probation in ga

  • Please join our Facebook group, Campaign To End Prisons For Profit, in order to continue the fight against these unlawful government practices. We must do everything we can to see that people understand the extent to which our government has gone in it’s unconstitutional practices for making allowances for corporations in general, especially those within the Prison Industrial Complex.

    https://m.facebook.com/swampwitch99?refsrc=https%3A%2F%2Fm.facebook.com%2Ffbrdr%2F2048%2F100000422817882%2F&refid=9&_rdr#!/groups/405186356169271?view=info&sfd=1

  • I have reason to believe that my fiance is being dealt with in the same way. He was pulled over for driving without a license, but only because he was rushing a very pregnant ME to the hospital. Not making an excuse for it, but they ended up taking him and MANY OTHERS to jail for a few hours, then to court, only to be put on probation for a year. Made to pay $50 every P/O visit plus fines and fees, PLUS community hours. What ever happened to just giving a ticket and keeping it moving?

    When he was arrested in November 2014, he had just moved to Georgia from Oklahoma. I was pregnant, and had only been here a few months myself. Neither of us had jobs, we were living off of our little bit of savings with 3 kids and one on the way. During court, he wanted to take an option to just do the jail time. He’d been to prison before and figured he could just do the time and not have to sacrifice our savings to pay fees and crap, but he wasn’t given that option. EVERYBODY in that court room was FORCED to take probation….WHO DOES THAT!?!?!

    Now, almost a year later, we are having a hard time finding employment, our truck had been broken for about a month, he’s way behind on his monthly payments, can’t pay the ticket, can’t pay the court fees. We’re facing eviction right now, because all of our savings are gone. They made him fill out a form regarding his finances that only knocked off about $50 (if that) of his total payment obligation. What good is that gonna do? He is scheduled to appear in court this week. Only God knows what will happen. I wish I had known about this unlawful treatment many months ago. Is there anything that can be done at this point to save him from going to jail or having to pay these outrageous fees? Please help. Our new son should not have to witness his father’s absence because of a greedy, unjust government.
    Go Bless!

  • If i had a 1yr D.U.I probation in 2012 an i v.o.p is my probation over with??? Can sumone answer me

    • Yes the warrant expires exactlyb12 months past the day on court you were paved on probation.Thw warrant says do not execute after a the date stamped and that’s the date 12 months after

      • Are you 100% sure of this I was arrested and sentence to misdemeanor probation in Georgia and live out of state but have to report..if I violate and a warrant is issued it will expire in 12 months from sentencing date..that would be great news

  • Matthew daniels

    That imfomation helped tremendously. Thank u.

  • No, criminals have the opportunity to just report to probation and not pay their fine or their monitoring fee. Also they dont have to pay their restitution. So when someone steals all of your property and the judge orders him to pay back 10%, when they stole all your jewelry and tools and say “bite me” and you are a 70 year old, they just sent you $5.00 every couple months and wait for you to die or their probation to end. So yes they should have a choice. They can choose jail and just “get it over”. Then the rest of us support their children with Angel Tree because of course no one in the family remembers that Christmas comes on December 25, and all the available money goes for cigarrettes and alcohol and dope. oh and what the kids do get from the agencies, the parents are returning to Walmart the day after Christmas for these items. So people got smart and started removing tags and blacking out UPC codes. If you arent working, go volunteer, go to school, join the military, how about this, dont get arrested ? Theres a thought.

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