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Class Action Suit Over Private Probation Company's Illegal Fees

by David M. Reutter

The Southern Center for Human Rights filed a class action lawsuit against Sentinel Offender Services, a private probation company, on behalf of persons in Atlanta who were forced by Sentinel to pay illegal fees while on "pay-only" probation for traffic violation.

Georgia law allows for courts to place defendants on "pay-only" probation when they are "unable to pay the court imposed fines and statutory surcharges when such defendant's sentence is imposed." The courts typically impose a jail sentence that is suspended in lieu of the probation.

If a violation is alleged, the defendant can be jailed, with limited procedural safeguards, for failure to pay.

Because Georgia criminalizes traffic offenses and many other low-level offenses, it has a higher rate of people on probation than any other state, and the highest number of people on probation, in absolute terms," the complaint states.

That created a huge market for Sentinel to operate within, and it had contracts to supervise people on probation in over 70 courts throughout Georgia. Corporate greed is at the root of the recent class action. Similar motivation resulted, as PLN reported, in other lawsuits against Sentinel. See PLN ___.

The class action suit has two class representatives for the "pay-only" probationers from the Atlanta Municipal Court. At issue is an illegal $20 "enrollment fee" that was not ordered by any court, authorized by statute, or authorized by the contract between Sentinel and the court.

Plaintiff Stacey Adams was subject to that fee, and plaintiff Jerry Saint Vil was charged for it three times. The complaint said they will prove "that Sentinel established its illegal policy sometime between January 2013 and January 2015, and then continued enriching itself at the expense of low-income people until the company's departure from the Atlanta Municipal Court in January 2017.

The contract provided that a "probationer is never charged more than the contract amount." Under the contract, pay-only probationers could be charged a monthly supervision fee of $27.00. If the probationer paid off the owed amount within 30 days, the fee was $20.00.

A reform bill enacted on July 1, 2015, aimed at addressing "problems plaguing the misdemeanor probation system." That law capped supervision fees "so as not to exceed three months of ordinary probation supervision fees." Sentinel circumvented that law and the contracts provision by calling the $20.00 fee on administrative "enrollment fee."

This law so limited Sentinel's ability to maintain long-term revenue from the 5,000 or more pay-only probationers in Atlanta that it sold the contract to another company. That came after Sentinel was unsuccessful in getting an order from the Atlanta court that its $20 fee was authorized.

The complaint seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

See: Adams v. Sentinel Offender Services, USDA, N.D. Georgia, Case No: 1:17-Mi-9999-UNA

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