Sentinel Offender Services is going to have to refund payments to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people under a ruling issued Monday.
In written opinions released in the Superior Courts of Richmond and Columbia counties, Judge Daniel J. Craig ruled that once a misdemeanor probation sentence has expired, it cannot be extended and neither Sentinel nor any other private probation company should collect probation fees once that time has expired.
In addition, Craig wrote, the law prohibits the electronic monitoring of people convicted of misdemeanor crimes, which includes nearly every traffic violation in Georgia. Sentinel must repay that money, too.
Craig’s rulings involve eight civil cases filed in Richmond County and five filed in Columbia County on behalf of people who allege Sentinel’s practices have violated their constitutional rights.
Attorneys for Sentinel and the Richmond County sheriff and State Court judges contend that they have followed the law and should not be kept from conducting their legal duties.
While Craig did not accept the plaintiffs’ contention that the state law – which allows local governing bodies to contract with private companies for misdemeanor probation services – is unconstitutional, the application of it in Richmond County has violated the basic constitutional right of due process, he found.
Sentinel’s practice has been to seek non-bondable arrest warrants for any probationer it contends has violated court-imposed conditions. At the same time, the company obtained a judge’s order that suspends the term of probation until the person is brought into court to face the allegations. But no action is taken to get the alleged violator into court.
The warrants are entered into the law enforcement database, however, and if and when the alleged violator encounters a law enforcement officer who checks for outstanding warrants, the person is arrested. Sometimes years have passed between the allegation and the arrest, as several plaintiffs discovered.
“The practice offends basic notions of due process by depriving the probationer the opportunity to defend the alleged violations of probation in a timely manner when evidence may be more readily available,” Craig wrote. It also subjects the probationer to incarceration after the original sentence has expired, he noted.
Craig ruled that such people are entitled to be party to a class action lawsuit.
In the Columbia County cases, Craig found that there was never a valid contract between Sentinel and Columbia County. Any fees collected after the initial probationary period ended must be returned, he ruled. There were no cases of electronic monitoring.
The judge withheld ruling on the issue of class certification in Columbia County until it is determined whether plaintiff Jacob Martin Glover is a proper representative of that class – that he had to pay Sentinel fees after the original term of probation ended but was not incarcerated for any probation violation.