Private probation in Georgia and elsewhere in the U.S. is very profitable.
Sentinel Offender Services, which holds the contract to provide services for Richmond County State Court, reported revenue of more than $5.58 million in a single month in June 2012, according to court documents.
Sentinel and most other private probation firms charge the local government nothing. The company makes all of its income from those people who are on probation.
In a December 2008 court hearing, then-Sentinel area manager Crystal Paige remarked that her company makes a profit off all of
“That’s why we’re in the business,” she added.
That being the case, said Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights, there’s a clear conflict of interest.
“There’s just no way to get around the profit motive here,” she said.
But there is no profit motive, Sentinel Chief Business Development Officer Mark Contestabile said Wednesday. Though he concedes that his company makes money from the services provided to probationers, “You’ll find that our fees are lower than county-run programs,” he added.
Sentinel has been in Richmond County since 2000, and Contestabile says it’s a sign that something must be working.
“Our contracts are renewed across the state, and I don’t think that would happen without community support,” he said.
The probation company thrives in Georgia because competition among other service providers is fierce, and the services it provides are more efficient and affordable, Contestabile added. Those savings are passed on not only to the county, but to the offenders as well, he said.
“We absolutely think that being able to reduce our costs means we can provide services at a lower cost to offenders,” he said.
Jail time costly to taxpayers
While local governments might not have to pay anything on the front end for probation services, every time a probationer is jailed, it costs taxpayers about $50 per day. Usually there are dozens of people in the Richmond County jail for misdemeanor probation violation at any given time.
“I inherited a system at one point that had more than 5,000 warrants already in the system,” said Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree on Wednesday. “There’s nothing we can do about those, so it really was a problem with the probation system. Once that warrant is issued, our job by law is to execute that warrant.
“We’ve been trying to work closely with the courts to see if we can find alternatives to see what we can do to relieve that backlog because every time I put a person in jail, that’s costing taxpayers money. That’s not helping the community.”
Though he’s still developing what those alternatives would be, Roundtree said it would involve sitting down with offenders to see what they’re able to do in lieu of paying a fine.
“The position of the person when they’re locked up isn’t the position they’re in now, and they’re never given an opportunity to prove that,” Roundtree said. “How can you make money if you’re locked up, therefore how can you pay for your fines, therefore how can you get off probation?”
Sentinel facing civil rights suits
Beginning in 2012, Sentinel has been named in more than a dozen civil right lawsuits. The litigation in Richmond and Columbia counties, while still pending, made headlines across the state when the Georgia Supreme Court weighed in.
Geraghty contends that probationers aren’t given enough notice to when they are accused of violating their probation, but Contestabile said probation officers are guided by state laws that require extensive documentation of communication efforts.
Geraghty also said they’re too quick to obtain warrants when probationers fail to report.
“The person may not know the warrant exists for years to come,” she said.
Such was the case for 28-year-old Steven Carter.
He doesn’t remember the date, but he said he vividly remembers the great feeling of knowing he wouldn’t have to go back to the double-wide trailer office of Sentinel. His probation officer had signed off on his release, Carter said. He had done and paid everything needed to complete his sentence for reckless driving.
Then in March 2013, Carter was pulled over for speeding in Columbia County. And when the deputy ran his name through the computer, a Sentinel warrant popped up: it was a warrant with a $650 cash bond. On the way to jail, the deputy told him about the news surrounding Sentinel, how many people were challenging the fairness of its probation violation warrants.
Carter said he knew he had completed his probation, that he would be able to quickly sort it out and be on his way. But Carter was behind bars nearly 12 hours, first in Columbia County and then in Richmond County, where the warrant was signed. He was released from the Richmond County jail only after paying Sentinel $650.
The next day Carter returned to the Sentinel office and asked for a copy of his file so he could get the final document to prove he didn’t owe Sentinel. “Absolutely not,” he recalled the woman at the front counter telling him.
He left and headed straight for attorney John “Jack” Long’s office.
Carter has put it behind him, but he wants his $650 back, and he wants the others who have straightened their lives out to live without harassment and fear of probation violations.