Critics say private probation punishes poor unfairly

Maybe nowhere else is the saying "money talks" more true than in courts such as Richmond County State Court.

Someone who can afford to pay off fines assessed for traffic and other misdemeanor offenses can usually walk out of court a free person. Anyone who can't pay might find himself entangled in the system with a financial debt that keeps growing as he faces the prospect of either paying the court or going to jail.

State Court provides one of the largest sources of revenue for the county, outside of property taxes, by collecting fines from thousands of people cited for traffic offenses and misdemeanors.

It's also a moneymaker for the private probation company that holds the contract to collect those fines and surcharges. Every month that a person remains on probation means more money for the company. And in any month that a probationer cannot pay the monthly charge in full, the probation company can take half of the payment, leaving less money to pay down the court fines.

It's a system that ensnares those without money. Unlike declaring bankruptcy to get out from under high-interest credit card bills or accepting foreclosure to get out of a subprime mortgage loan, the debt to a court is binding and can mean a jail cell if it's not paid.

For years the Southern Center for Human Rights has condemned how the Richmond County State Court operates, suggesting it has fostered a new kind of debtors' prison.

The center says it's not only unfair that the poor end up paying more for the same violations, but it's also unfair because it subjects them to unnecessary risk of incarceration.

That's something that weighed on Mariette Conner.

Ms. Conner said she felt trapped by the system in 2007 when she got a ticket for failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Because the 63-year-old assistant minister didn't have the $140 to pay off the ticket immediately, she was placed on probation for a year. Her probation fee and victims' fund payment totaled $39 each month.

Ms. Conner, whose only income is Social Security, had to take two buses to make it to the Sentinel Offender Services office every month. She was able to make only small payments -- once she borrowed the ingredients to bake pies that she sold to raise the money to pay on her fine. Every month she got further behind.

And while she was trying to pay off the fine, Ms. Conner fell behind on her other bills, she said. When she paid just $20 in September 2007, $10 went to Sentinel, $9 went to the victims' fund, and just $1 went to pay on her fine, according to her receipts from Sentinel.

When Ms. Conner said she was falsely accused of missing a report date and threatened with jail in November 2007, the Southern Center for Human Rights stepped in to help her. By then, Ms. Conner had paid $185.99 on her original $140 ticket, but only $56.99 had been applied to the fine. Because she couldn't afford to pay the full amount every month, the money she owed more than doubled. The center petitioned the court to terminate Ms. Conner's probation, and Judge Richard Slaby did so.

A month after Ms. Conner's ordeal ended, she had tears in her eyes.

"I was so scared," she said. The idea of going to jail left her shaking and feeling sick, she said. In her ministry work she has heard many people tell her how they were trapped in the State Court payment system, but they were too afraid to speak out for fear of going to jail, Ms. Conner said on Christmas Eve 2007.

PRIVATE PROFIT

Court and private probation company officials are quick to point out that no one is arrested and jailed for nonpayment alone. But the arrest warrants can allow the sheriff's department to release a violator upon payment of a certain amount of money.

Traffic offenses can lead to time behind bars in Georgia because they are criminal offenses with a maximum punishment just like any misdemeanor offense: one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. If a person can pay off the fine and surcharges, an encounter with the State Court ends, unless a person is facing charges such as drunken driving or domestic violence.

But someone who cannot pay the fine and surcharges on his court date is put on probation. He will be given a payment plan but also must pay a monthly probation supervision fee.

At one time, the county provided probation services for State Court, said Chief Judge Gayle Hamrick. The state later took over, but in 2001 the state stopped providing the services. Richmond County and many others in Georgia hired private companies.

In Richmond County, Sentinel holds the contract. It earns $30 a month from each probationer it collects court-ordered payments from and $35 a month from each probationer who owes money and is enrolled in a court-ordered program. A probationer who is on an electronic monitoring system must also pay a start-up fee and additional fee of $6 to $12 a day.

Ms. Conner suggested it would be better for the State Court judges to require community service instead of fines.

That happens a lot, said Sentinel's Augusta-area manager, Crystal Page. If a probationer has a financial hardship, her office can substitute community service for the payment, she said. Ms. Page estimated her office converted more than $800,000 to community service in the past two years. The company is willing to work with people, Ms. Page said. It succeeds when a probationer successfully completes all the court-ordered conditions. Once that is done, the probationer moves to unsupervised status, which means he is still on probation but no longer reporting in or paying the monthly supervision fees, Ms. Page said.

The worst thing a probationer can do is fail to report to his Sentinel probation officer, Ms. Page said. Even if he doesn't have the money to pay on the fine or fees, he must report when required. It's a violation of office policy for a probation officer to threaten a probationer because he can't make a payment, Ms. Page said.

Steve Queen, the vice president of Sentinel, said being honest in its dealings with courts and probationers is good business and builds the company's reputation. Mistakes can happen, but it's not company policy to threaten anyone or create conditions where a probationer is set up to fail, he said.

One former Sentinel probation officer testified under oath at a Richmond County Superior Court hearing that he was fired because he did not meet company expectations for the number of warrants he applied for each week.

THE ISSUE OF FAIRNESS

Augusta attorney John "Jack" Long, a longtime critic of the use of private probation companies, contends that it can never be fair for a private company in the business of making money to have the ability to send people to jail. Sentinel officers can obtain nonbondable arrest warrants against probationers.

Mr. Long took a pro bono case in order to launch a legal challenge to the way State Court operates. While he won on one level by convincing a judge to reverse his client's drunken driving conviction, the judge sidestepped the larger constitutional issues he raised about the fairness of how people are treated in State Court. The case is pending before the Georgia Supreme Court.

"I personally think that the court will affirm the grant of habeas (also find in favor of his client)," Mr. Long wrote in an e-mail. "As to the constitutional issues, they have the ability to dodge them," which he thinks is unfortunate.

"I think that the problem with outsourcing probation services is that it involves the wrong incentives. Private businesses 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."

According to the most recent Sentinel report provided to State Court, the company supervised probationers with a total of 25,198 cases in the second quarter of 2009. Sentinel also collected $552,629 for the court.

Taxpayers, however, won't know how much Sentinel makes for its services. It is not subject to Georgia's Open Records Act because the General Assembly specifically exempted private probation companies in 2006.

Ms. Page estimated there are about 5,000 probationers at any point, and just more than 3,000 of them are compliant -- meaning they are paying on the fines and fees, and doing anything else required by the court. If just those who are compliant pay the minimum supervision fee, the company would collect more than $1 million a year in Richmond County.

But many people can't or don't pay their fees or complete court-order programs, such as defensive driving school. More than 10,000 warrants are outstanding for the arrest of probationers who aren't following the rules. Some of those warrants date back to 1998.

Locking up all of those people could bankrupt the county. Although Richmond County State Court makes money, it also contributes to one of the county's largest expenses -- running the county jails, at a time when the sheriff's department is looking at a $5.9 million deficit next year.

Richmond County's overcrowded jails generally hold about 1,000 people. On one day in May, for example, a computer breakdown of inmates showed 225 of the inmates had misdemeanor probation violations. It costs about $50 a day to jail a person. If those misdemeanor probation violators were jailed for a single month, it would cost taxpayers $337,500.

TAXPAYERS' EXPENSE

In dozens of cases The Augusta Chronicle examined, it would have been cheaper for taxpayers to pay off the probation violators' fines and fees than pay for their time in jail.

Nearly every weekday in State Court at least a few people are brought in handcuffed and shackled, wearing the jail's cotton jumpsuits. Most ended up in jail because they were stopped for a new offense and the arresting officers discovered the nonbondable probation violation warrant. To get out of jail, they have to convince the judge that they can do better. Many are sent back to jail, where they stay unless and until they pay a certain amount on their fines and fees.

Some will stay until they pay the start-up cost for electronic monitoring. Judge David Watkins revoked one woman's probation this summer after repeated domestic violence incidents. The judge said it was obvious to him there was a serious alcohol problem and the only way he felt comfortable -- that she would be less likely to be a threat to others -- was if she was on an alcohol monitoring system.

Her problem, however, is that she doesn't have the $208 for the start-up fee or the additional $12 daily probation monitoring fee. She's still sitting in jail, and taxpayers are paying about $50 a day until someone finds the money for her or until she completes her revoked sentence.

Judge Watkins acknowledges there's an issue when a person with money can get out of jail and on the monitoring system while someone who's poor stays incarcerated. The question, he said, is who can pay for those too poor to pay for themselves. If it's cheaper for taxpayers to pay for the electronic monitoring than keeping someone in jail, "it's a no-brainer to me," Judge Watkins said.

Judge Hamrick said he sees no reason to apologize because someone repeatedly gets into trouble and racks up fines and fees, which a person must pay or go to jail. Maybe it isn't fair that poor people end up paying more and facing jail time more often than those with money, but, he said, it also isn't right to let someone go unpunished based on finances. It's not a simple issue. State Court judges throughout Georgia struggle with it constantly, he said.

As long as traffic violations are criminal offenses in Georgia, state and municipal court judges will be setting fines and sentencing people to jail for minor offenses, he said. And the mandatory sentencing laws themselves are Draconian, he said. A first offense of driving without a license is a mandatory $500 fine; a second offense is a $1,000 fine, Judge Hamrick said. Judges can't change that.

Georgia is the only state in the country that punishes a simple traffic offense by as much as a year in jail, according to a study prepared for the Georgia Supreme Court.

COSTS ACCUMULATE

Until recently, those accused of traffic offenses usually just pleaded guilty without the help of an attorney.

But in 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an Alabama case that every state must provide legal counsel to anyone who could face imprisonment immediately or anytime in the future for any violation of probation. It applies to every felony, traffic ticket and city ordinance violation that might involve jail time.

Now attorneys are to be appointed, although former Sentinel probation officer Kathleen Gibson, who was terminated in 2002, said the way that issue is treated in court discourages people from asking for a public defender. Richmond County State Court is all about the money, Ms. Gibson said.

A part of her job was explaining how much money probationers would have to pay each month.

"The shock on their faces when they come in to set up (a payment plan) ... is something to see," Ms. Gibson said. "It is hard explaining it to most of them.

"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 fees piling up. ... It is no wonder most them cannot pay and end up back in jail."

Sentinel officials vehemently denied any push to file probation-violation warrants. Just the opposite is true because a probationer in jail isn't paying fines or fees.

The State Court's chief judge said he believes Sentinel is doing a good job enforcing the court orders. Judge Hamrick said he would prefer such a duty be completed by a government agency, but when Augusta commissioners were given the option to re-establish a probation department or outsource to a private company, they chose the latter.

When he was a city commissioner from 2001 to 2005, Bobby Hankerson says, he got dozens of calls from people who were afraid they were going to go to jail because they couldn't afford to pay their fines and fees.

It's not that all were blameless, but some appeared helplessly trapped, he said.

"It is sort of like a revolving charge card in that there was no end to it," Mr. Hankerson said, adding that it's like getting a $35 late fee every month on a $15 payment. "It never ends."

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

RELATED STORY

5 people ensnared in the probation system

 

ONLINE EXTRA

View these documents in PDF format:

Mariette Conner's receipts: Receipt 1, Receipt 2

An alcohol monitoring program information sheet

Sentinel Offender Services activity report

WHO IS SENTINEL?

Sentinel Offender Services is a privately owned company created in Marietta, Ga., in 1993 that employs more than 400 people. The president and CEO is Robert Contestable.

Sentinel began with monitoring services but expanded in providing probation services in Georgia when the state law was changed to privatize misdemeanor probation services.

Sentinel's contract with Augusta allows it to charge a $30 monthly probation supervision fee when it collects only money for the court. It can charge $35 a month for cases in which it also has supervision or monitoring services for conditions other than money. Sentinel may also charge a $15 enrollment fee. If a monthly payment is not enough to cover both the fine payments and monthly supervision fee, Sentinel is allowed to take half of the money paid.

 

BIG BUSINESS

The fines and surcharges assessed of people charged with minor, misdemeanor offenses, including traffic violations, brings in a lot of money.

In 2009, the Augusta city budget expects $3.4 million from Richmond County State Court alone.

By June 30, 2008, state courts throughout Georgia had collected $119,714,899. Municipal courts, often traffic courts in Georgia, collected another $195,311,522.

According to the statewide report, more than $231 million of the money collected by state courts went into local governments' general funds.