by Derek Gilna
In July 2016, just before trial, Sentinel Offender Services, a private probation company, agreed to pay a $200,000 settlement to LaSaundria J. Walker for illegally keeping her in jail after she completed her term of probation. Sentinel also agreed to pay Hills McGee $75,000 to settle a lawsuit after he was jailed for two weeks for failing to pay community supervision fees.
Those settlements were in addition to a jury award of $50,000 in compensatory damages and $125,000 in attorney’s fees to Kathleen Hucks, another Sentinel client, for false arrest and imprisonment. [See: PLN, Feb. 2017, p.48]. More than a dozen people have sued the company in both Richmond and Columbia counties in Georgia, plus a dozen more in other jurisdictions, accusing Sentinel of committing numerous civil rights violations.
Augusta attorney Jack Long has led efforts to prevent Sentinel and other private probation firms from profiting from improper business practices – which typically include imposing numerous fees on probationers, then having them jailed when they are unable to pay. The subject of an article published by the American Bar Association in 2014, Long, as well as other attorneys, have argued that Sentinel is not interested in rehabilitation or ensuring public safety, but only in collecting fees to generate profit for the firm. Instead of saving money for cash-strapped local governments, Long said, this practice has resulted in a modern version of debtor’s prisons.
In Walker’s case, Sentinel reportedly obtained a warrant for her arrest despite a ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court that held misdemeanor probation sentences could not extend beyond their original expiration date. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.38]. Further, the company did not take steps to have the warrant recalled after Walker paid off the fees she owed. The amount of fees in dispute was $195.
After Hucks received two years of probation for a DUI and other offenses, she suffered through a series of serious health issues and was jailed four times for failing to pay Sentinel’s monthly fees. When her husband tried to deliver her medication to the jail, he was prevented from giving it to her until he paid what she owed. Hucks had a seizure as a result, and shortly thereafter a judge ordered her release.
During Hucks’ February 2016 civil rights trial, Long introduced evidence that she was disabled, unable to work and had no money to pay Sentinel’s fees. Her sister testified that she had paid Hucks’ supervision fees four years earlier but Sentinel kept Hucks in custody, claiming that she failed to complete alcohol and drug treatment.
Long was also the attorney who represented Hills McGee, who received a $75,000 settlement from Sentinel in April 2015. McGee, a veteran who suffered from mental illness, had spent two weeks in jail because the company said he owed $186 in probation fees. [See: PLN, Jan. 2014, p.18].
According to a February 22, 2017 news report, a dozen lawsuits filed against Sentinel alleging wrongful arrest were settled that month under confidential terms. Two class-action suits against the company remain pending in Georgia.
Sources: The Augusta Chronicle, www.abajournal.com, www.wjbf.com
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