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Georgia’s Privatized Probation System Traps the Poor

by David M. Reutter

As the prison industrial complex has continued to grow, critics of privatization have adamantly warned that it would lead to financial incentives for for-profit companies to keep people ensnared in the criminal justice system. The privatized probation system in Georgia is the fulfillment of that warning.

When Georgia discontinued providing probation services for State Courts in 2001, many counties hired private com-panies to operate such programs. Richmond County currently contracts with Sentinel Offender Services.

Sentinel earns $35 a month in court-ordered payments for each probationer it supervises, $30 a month for probation-ers who owe money and are in a court-ordered program such as anger management, and a start-up fee and additional fees of $6 to $12 for those on a monitoring system. The company serves over 90 courts in Georgia and supervises more than 40,000 probationers each month statewide.

According to Crystal Page, Sentinel’s Augusta area manager, at any given time there are around 5,000 probationers in Richmond County. Approximately 3,000 are compliant with their payments, which would bring in more than $1 million annually based on the minimum supervision fee.

The case of Mariette Conner demonstrates that privatized probation services can result in probationers paying more than twice the original fee when a for-profit company is involved. Conner, 63, received a traffic ticket for failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk in 2007.
Because she was unable to immediately pay the $140 fine she was placed on proba-tion, which required her to pay a monthly fee and make payments to a victims’ fund totaling $39 a month.
Conner’s sole income was Social Security, so she was only able to make small payments after riding two buses to Sentinel’s office to submit her monthly report. As a result, she continued to get further behind in her payments and other bills.

Her receipt for a $20 payment in September 2007 demonstrates the problems with the for-profit probation system. Of that payment, $10 went to Sentinel, $9 went to the victims’ fund and $1 went toward the fine. The Southern Center for Human Rights intervened on Conner’s behalf when she was threatened with jail time after being falsely accused of miss-ing a monthly report.

Judge Richard Shelby terminated Conner’s probation after it was shown the cost of her fine had doubled. While Con-ner had paid $185.99 on the original $140 fine, only $56.99 had gone towards the fine. The rest went to Sentinel and the victims’ fund.

The dilemma that Conner faced is the same dilemma faced by other probationers in Georgia who are unable to pay traffic fines upon their imposition. As with other misdemeanors, traffic offenses are considered crimes in Georgia, which can result in up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

“I think that the problem with outsourcing probation services is that it involves the wrong incentives. Private busi-nesses want to make a profit, and that is the way businesses operate. Courts are supposed to dispense justice, not be looked upon as cash registers for the government,” wrote attorney John “Jack” Long in an e-mail to the Augusta Chroni-cle.

In its second-quarter 2009 report to the State Court, Sentinel reported supervising probationers in a total of 25,198 cases, collecting $552,629 for the court. While Page said the company had converted $800,000 owed by probationers to community service work in the last two years, one unidentified former Sentinel employee accused the company of using hardball tactics to get probationers to pay.

Those who fail to make payments land in jail without bond until they pay what is owed or can assure a judge they can make future payments. Testifying in Richmond County Superior Court, the former Sentinel employee said he was fired for failing to meet the company’s quota for filing a minimum number of warrants each week against probationers who missed payments.

Many probationers are mortified at the costs associated with their privatized supervision and are unable to pay. “The shock on their faces when they come in to set up [a payment plan] … is something to see,” said former Sentinel probation officer Kathleen Gibson. “Tack on the time it takes for community service, DUI school, anger management or whatever else is added to the sentence – because they have to pay for the classes also – and the months just drag on by with the fees piling up. … It is no wonder most of them cannot pay and end up back in jail.”

The cost to taxpayers for jailing people is about $50 per prisoner per day. Georgia has more than 10,000 outstanding warrants for probationers; many are unable to pay their monthly fees, which extends their probationary period.

“It is sort of like a revolving charge card in that there was no end to it,” said former city commissioner Bobby Hankerson, adding it is like getting a $35 late fee every month on a $15 payment. “It never ends.”

Such arrangements are, however, very profitable for for-profit companies like Sentinel, if not for the impoverished people they supervise or the taxpayers who foot the bill when probationers are jailed because they can’t afford inflated supervision fees. The power of private probation companies is not absolute, though.

On April 16, 2010, the Richmond County Superior Court entered a restraining order against Sentinel, preventing the company from trying to collect fees from Hills McGee, a mentally ill veteran who lives on $243 a month in disability pay-ments. McGee was jailed for almost two weeks after his probation was violated for failing to pay $186 in fees that Sentinel claimed he owed; however, the violation was later voided and his underlying convictions for obstruction of a law officer and public drunkenness were overturned. Regardless, Sentinel continued to attempt to collect the fees.

McGee’s suit, which was removed to federal court, seeks class-action status and challenges the constitutionality of private probation services. On April 29, the parties agreed to a permanent injunction prohibiting Sentinel from taking any action to collect fees from McGee. See: McGee v. Sentinel Offender Services, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Georgia), Case No. 1:10-cv-00054-JRH-WLB.
Besides Sentinel, at least two other companies, Professional Probation Services and Southeast Corrections, provide for-profit probation supervision in Georgia.

Sources: Augusta Chronicle, Atlanta Journal Constitution,

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