ATLANTA – People on probation for minor offenses still have to serve their entire sentence, even if something happens to interrupt their sentence, according to a decision the Georgia Supreme Court handed down last week.
In its Friday 6-1 ruling, the court agreed with Sentinel Offender Services, the state’s largest private probation company, in a case affecting thousands of people on probation before a 2015 law change. Cities across the state contract with the company and others like it to supervise people on probation for misdemeanors, like traffic offenses.
The company has been the subject of complaints, and the state’s top court ruled against it in a collection of 26 high-profile cases in 2014 which determined the company was wrong to stop the clock on sentences for failure to pay the company fees. In that case, the court concluded that a judge must stop the clock, not the company.
The latest decision looked at the same issue from a different angle. In response to a question from a federal district judge presiding over a lawsuit against Sentinel, the state court found that so-called common law – essentially common sense -- can also stop the clock.
For example, if an inmate escaped from jail while serving a 5-year sentence, the sentence would not keep ticking down during time on the run. Instead, it would stop at the moment of escape and start again at recapture.
Friday’s decision stemmed from a federal suit by Glynn County resident Richard Lamar Anderson. He was given a 12-month suspended sentence in May, 2009, supervised by Sentinel, and fined $500 for driving on a suspended license. By July, the company’s probation officer got an arrest warrant for him for failing to report and not paying his fines and supervisory fees.
After he was arrested in 2011 for the warrant, Anderson, was released quickly because, he says, the jailers realized his probation had expired nine months earlier. Then, he refused to report to a probation hearing, prompting another arrest.
His lawyer, James Yancey, argued neither arrest was valid because the 12 months of the sentence was over since, at the time, the General Assembly had enacted no law that gave judges the power to stop the clock, what lawyers call tolling the sentence. Attorneys for the state countered that simple logic stopped the clock when Anderson didn’t pay his fine or report for probation, and the Supreme Court agreed.