Attorneys challenge legality of private probation

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Hills McGee might have to serve two months in jail because he couldn't pay a private probation company's supervision fees.

Hills McGee has sat in the Richmond County jail for nearly two weeks because he couldn't pay a private probation company's supervision fees, his attorneys contend.

 

Unless McGee discovers a way to make $186 in jail, or a writ of habeas corpus -- a civil proceeding that challenges the lawfulness of his imprisonment -- is granted, he must serve two months behind bars.

Attorneys John B. Long, A. Montague Miller and John C. Bell volunteered to represent McGee and seek a ruling that the use of private, for-profit probation companies is an unconstitutional delegation of judicial power.

McGee's Richmond County Superior Court habeas petition is assigned to Judge Michael N. Annis. He has scheduled a hearing for 9 a.m. Wednesday.

According to court records, McGee pleaded no contest on Oct. 23, 2008, to misdemeanor charges of obstruction of a law enforcement officer and public drunkenness. He was sentenced to 24 months' probation and ordered to pay $270 in fines and surcharges and a $39 monthly probation supervision fee.

In January, according to court records, McGee was given two months to perform 41 hours of community service in lieu of paying the $270 because he couldn't afford it.

According to the habeas petition filed for McGee, his only income is a monthly $243 disability check from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

McGee says he completed the community service, Long said.

A telephone message left for Sentinel Area Manager Crystal Page wasn't returned Monday afternoon. In an interview with The Augusta Chronicle last year, Page said when a probationer completes all the conditions of his sentence, his case is transferred to non-supervisory status, and he no longer has to report or pay the monthly probation fee.

On Jan. 13, McGee was brought back into Richmond County State Court to show cause as to why his probation shouldn't be revoked. The petition alleged he had failed to pay $186 and failed to report to his probation officer.

State Court Judge David D. Watkins ordered McGee to pay $186 -- the amount owed to Sentinel -- or serve two months in jail.

According to jail records, on Monday, McGee was one of 114 Richmond County jail inmates who were being held because a State Court order to show cause was pending or had resulted in a jail sentence. The taxpayers' bill for just one day: $5,130.

Sheriff Ronnie Strength said Monday there were just over 1,000 inmates in the jail, which meant it was over capacity.

He is mindful of the $45-a-day cost to house an inmate, especially this year, because he is trying to reduce jail costs by $500,000 to meet his budget.

McGee's attorneys contend it is unlawful to jail someone for failing to pay a fine or fee unless a judge determines the failure was willful. According to the petition, no such determination was made before McGee was sentenced to jail.

McGee's attorneys contend it is a violation of his rights to allow a private, for-profit company to file revocation petitions and obtain warrants as a collection tool.

They are asking Annis to find that the state law that allows state and municipal courts to employ private probation firms is unconstitutional.

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

MONTHLY FEES

Sentinel Offender Services is a privately owned company started in Marietta, Ga., in 1993. It employs more than 400 people.

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 Area Manager Crystal 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.

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