People accused of violating misdemeanor probation arrested in roundup

 

A squad of Richmond County Sheriff officers spent their workday Thursday arresting people who have pending warrants for allegedly violating the terms of misdemeanor probation sentences.

Richmond County State Court Chief Judge Richard Slaby said the roundup was an attempt to get people to comply with the terms of their probation sentences. All warrants were active, he said.

But warrants issued years earlier are also still “active.”

The warrants were obtained by probation officers who work for the private, for-profit company Sentinel Offender Services. A series of lawsuits is challenging the constitutionality of private companies performing a judicial function, some specifically targeting Sentinel with allegations it has caused the false arrests and jailing of numerous people.

Attorney Jack Long, who filed the civil lawsuits against Sentinel, was furious Thursday. Less than two hours after a client’s court hearing was postponed by Sentinel, the client called him in a panic because officers were at her home to arrest her on a warrant stemming from 2005.

The warrant Thursday wasn’t valid, however, and she wasn’t arrested. The warrant had been withdrawn in April when she was arrested and jailed for four days for owing Sentinel $41.

Slaby said all of the people with warrants had failed to appear for court hearings. On Thursday, Sentinel probation officers were at the jail to meet with the people arrested. If they signed compliance agreements, they were released, Slaby said.

If anyone wanted to contest the probation violation allegations, Slaby said they could do so in court. Meanwhile, they would stay in jail. Slaby said the judges can usually see people within 48 hours of arrest and often by the next day.

Richmond County Sheriff Capt. Steve Strickland of special operations said his team of 16 officers and a few reserve officers were serving the warrants. He estimated there are a couple hundred. It was the same kind of roundup they have done in the past for state probation officers who supervise people convicted of felony offenses, he said.

The team was only assigned to the roundup for one shift Thursday, but the officers now have a list of people that they can use to follow up, Strickland said.

Special ops officers are assigned around the city as needed in particular areas, such as a neighborhood experiencing a rash of burglaries, Strickland said.

Community policing stops crime, Long said, and it is wrong to pull officers off that duty. “I don’t think that taxpayers need to be spending money to help a private company collect their fees, and I don’t think that a private company should be allowed to use the jail facilities to collect their money or that they should be the ones deciding if someone is locked up or jailed,” he said.

Keeping a person in jail for a single day costs taxpayers about $50.

Although Strickland and Slaby said there were only a couple hundred warrants being served, according to evidence presented in the lawsuits against Sentinel, there are about 5,000 such warrants on the books.

On Thursday, the jail records indicted as least 12 people were jailed on those warrants. Two of the warrants were issued because the accused failed to appear for a court date. The rest were based on Sentinel probation officers’ allegations that probationers were in violation of some conditions imposed by the state court judges. Most could be released if they paid money, according to jail records.

Ricky Scott, 60, was picked up on a bench warrant Thursday, but according to court records, Scott’s probation was terminated Jan. 2. Scott was sentenced to a year on probation in March 2005 for driving without a license. According to jail records, Scott could be released if he pays $212. He was released later Thursday.

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the back story

Legal challenge to private probation

BACKGROUND: A series of lawsuits filed in Richmond and Columbia County have challenged the constitutionality of private, for-profit companies providing probation services for the judiciary. A number of the lawsuits against Sentinel Offender Services specifically targets that company with accusations of causing the false arrest and incarceration of people sentenced to probation terms for misdemeanor offenses.

 

DEVELOPMENTS:

In September, Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Craig ruled that once a misdemeanor probation sentence has expired, it cannot be extended, a practice called tolling. He also ruled private probation companies have no authority to perform electronic monitoring. He did not find the use of private probation companies to be unconstitutional, however.

Sentinel is challenging Craig’s ruling. The cases are on appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Although Craig’s order had prevented the arrest of people whose probation terms have expired and the use of electronic monitoring, the Supreme Court granted Sentinel’s request to set that order aside.

A decision on the merits of appeal isn’t expected for several months.

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