Case challenges privatized probation

The treatment of people facing minor criminal charges in Richmond County State Court is on trial in a higher court.

An attorney for Lisa Harrelson is challenging her State Court conviction and sentence. Attorney John "Jack" Long is also mounting a constitutional challenge to the use of a private probation company to collect fines for the county and fees for itself.

On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet heard from witnesses in Ms. Harrelson's petition, which names Richmond County State Court Solicitor Harold Jones and Sentinel Offender Services as defendants. Attorneys for Ms. Harrelson and Mr. Jones will have time to file briefs before the judge makes his decision. No attorney has appeared for Sentinel, which is in default.

Ms. Harrelson spent two days in the Richmond County Jail in July 2007 after she was found slumped over the steering wheel of her car at 13th Street and Walton Way.

Sgt. Pete Lamb of the DUI Task Force testified Tuesday that he arrested Ms. Harrelson for driving under the influence of drugs. According to court documents, she took prescription medication for mental health. Alcohol was not a factor in the arrest, Sgt. Lamb testified.

But in State Court on July 30, 2007, Ms. Harrelson pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol. She was fined $400, assessed an additional $251 in surcharges and sentenced to 12 months' probation. Every month she would be responsible for paying part of her fine and surcharges and paying Sentinel a $35 supervision fee.

The county has contracted with Sentinel to provide probationary services for about 10 years. Before that, county probation employees collected fines and fees.

Ms. Harrelson's petition challenges the legality of a private, for-profit company having powers generally limited to the court, and powers that enable the company to increase its fee collections. The suit says it is unconstitutional that Sentinel routinely requests expanded probation periods. The petition also challenges Sentinel's ability to have a probationer arrested for missing payments.

Crystal Page, the Augusta-area manager for Sentinel, testified that her officers often ask judges to run probation sentences consecutively because that gives the probationer more time to pay off fines and smaller monthly payments.

Her officers can file a probation violation arrest warrant based on missed payments, Ms. Page testified. But the probationer can make a payment to get out of jail. The amount is set by the judge, she said.

Ms. Harrelson has made a single $500 payment, Ms. Page testified. From that, $265 went toward payment of her fine and surcharges. Sentinel got $190 for probation fees.

Ms. Harrelson's petition, which seeks to set aside her conviction and sentence, also seeks the return of the $500.

No court reporter was present the day Ms. Harrelson pleaded guilty and received her sentence. Without a transcript, her attorney contends, there is no way to prove she pleaded guilty voluntarily and with a full understanding of the rights she relinquished.

According to the petition, Ms. Harrelson didn't have an attorney, and she didn't seek help from the public defender's office because she didn't have $50 for the application fee.

Mr. Jones testified that the procedures in Richmond County State Court, by prosecutors and by the judges, ensure that defendants understand their rights to legal counsel.

Judge Overstreet asked Mr. Jones whether he questioned the validity of the procedures, considering that Ms. Harrelson pleaded guilty to a crime she didn't commit. Mr. Jones said he could only speculate.

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