Justices to hear case of private probation firm

The Georgia Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday in a Richmond County case that pits the government and a private company against a pro bono attorney hoping the court will end the use of private, for-profit probation companies.

Earlier this year, Superior Court Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet reversed Lisa Harrelson's misdemeanor conviction and ordered Sentinel Offender Services to return the $500 she had paid in fines and fees.

Sentinel and the state, through Richmond County State Court Solicitor Harold Jones, appealed the ruling.

Attorney John "Jack" Long filed a cross appeal to ask the state's high court to address what Judge Overstreet did not: the constitutionality of a court's use of a private, pro-profit company to monitor probationers.

The Augusta Chronicle reported last year that Ms. Harrelson was arrested in July 2007 after she was found slumped over the steering wheel of her car at 13th Street and Walton Way. She was charged with driving under the influence of drugs.

Ms. Harrelson took prescription medication for mental health.

After two days in jail, Ms. Harrelson waived her right to a court-appointed attorney because she didn't have $50 for the public defender's application fee, Mr. Long said.

She pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol, not drugs.

Ms. Harrelson was fined $400, assessed $251 in surcharges and placed on probation for 11 months and 29 days. She was also ordered to pay Sentinel a supervision fee of $35 a month.

Ms. Harrelson signed documents indicating she did not want an attorney and that she was freely and voluntarily pleading guilty. However, there is no transcript of the hearing.

Judge Overstreet ruled there is no way to prove Ms. Harrelson's plea was voluntary without a transcript of the hearing. He also found the $50 fee to apply for a public defender infringed on a poor person's right to an attorney.

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

WATCH ONLINE

The Georgia Supreme Court is televising Monday's oral arguments. This case will be heard at 2 p.m. To watch, go to www.gasupreme.us/media/live_sept.php.