More than a dozen people in the Columbia County jail accused of violating the terms of their misdemeanor probation sentences have received an early Christmas present.
Instead of having a marathon round of hearings in Columbia County Superior Court, as Judge Daniel J. Craig suggested Friday, Sentinel Offender Services consented to release those locked up only because of warrants Sentinel obtained. The order does not affect those who have secondary criminal offenses.
Craig is presiding over civil lawsuits accusing the private probation company of illegal arrest and incarceration.
Craig signed the order to release 17 people, and they were released Monday, said Columbia County sheriff’s Capt. Steve Morris. The legal move headed off a sixth civil suit against Sentinel.
Attorney John Long filed five lawsuits against Sentinel in recent weeks, challenging the legality of the company operating as the probation services provider in Columbia County when it does not have a signed contract with the county government. Long cited state law that says local governments can contract with private probation firms with the chief judge’s approval and a contract with the local governmental body.
On Tuesday, Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet said he couldn’t weigh in on the claims in the lawsuits, but he has asked Sentinel and two other private probation firms to submit proposals for a contract with Columbia County. He said he had assumed Sentinel would have been covered by the contract signed by the company it replaced in 2000.
Overstreet said he will consult with Burke, Richmond and Columbia county commissioners about the possibility of them establishing county probation offices. A decision on how to proceed should be made within a month, he said.
Sentinel isn’t conceding to the challenge of its authority to operate in Columbia County.
The lawsuits against Sentinel also contend its employees have obtained arrest warrants that cause probationers to be jailed after the terms of misdemeanor sentences expired.
Craig issued an order last week appointing attorney Randy Shepard – a veteran of the district attorney’s office who recently left for private practice – to review applications for arrest warrants that Sentinel wants for people serving misdemeanor probation terms in Columbia County.
On Monday, the plaintiffs’ attorney complained to Craig that Sentinel employees had presented arrest warrants from two other judges that day without Shepard’s approval.