Jury hears from Sentinel officials in civil rights case

 

 

It was just a coincidence that warrants were sought for Kathleen Hucks’ arrest on the months she had no money to pay Sentinel Offen­der Services, one of her probation officers testified Thursday.

The repeated arrests and time in jail was Hucks’ responsibility because she couldn’t comply with the court-ordered conditions of her probation, testified Gina Childs, Sentinel’s office manager in Augusta. And if Hucks was disabled and unable to pay the monthly probation fees, she never told Childs or Barbara John­son, another Sentinel probation officer who supervised Hucks.

Hucks is one of more than a dozen people who have sued the private, for-profit probation company in Rich­mond and Columbia counties. Hucks contends she was falsely arrested and illegally incarcerated because of Sentinel’s quest to make profits.

In April 2006, Hucks was sentenced in Columbia Coun­ty Superior Court to two years of probation for driving under the influence, driving on a revoked license and possession of marijuana.

Between April 2006 and September 2012, Hucks was arrested on probation violation warrants four times – twice after her original sentence had expired.

In a ruling in 2014, the Geor­gia Supreme Court found Sentinel never had a valid contract in Columbia County. Sentinel bought out DMS, which did have a contract with the county, in 2000. The company never sought its own contract, which must be approved by the county commission to be valid.

Sentinel co-owner Mark Contes­tabile testified Thursday that the success of private probation companies is based on the success of the probationers they supervise.

If they are sent to jail for violating the conditions of probation, that is failure, he said. Sending a probationer to jail is bad for the company because the probationer isn’t paying fees while in jail, Contestabile said.

Hucks’ monthly payment schedule of $291 was set up when she was not able to work and was not collecting any disability, she testified this week. After a probation violation arrest in 2008, her sister paid off the $3,256 she owed to the court. But Hucks remained on probation because she hadn’t completed a risk reduction class or provided proof of drug and alcohol treatment, Sentinel employees said in testimony this week.

Sentinel probation officers never questioned Hucks about her ability to pay or suggest converting her probation supervision fees to community service, Childs said. “She never asked for it.”

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