The kinds of allegations of abuse and civil rights violations leveled at the private probation firm Sentinel Offender Services and the Richmond County State Court aren’t unique to Augusta or even Georgia, according to a study by an international human rights organization.
A 31-page report released today by Human Rights Watch contends that the same complaints raised in Augusta by civil lawsuits are common across states that allow courts to contract with private, for-profit probation companies.
The group’s study included 75 interviews with people in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi in the second half of 2013.
Human Rights Watch says the study “shows how some company probation officers behave like abusive debt collectors. It explains how some courts and probation companies combine to jail offenders who fall behind on payments they cannot afford to make, in spite of clear legal protections meant to prohibit this. It also argues that the fee structure of offender-funded probation is inherently discriminatory against poor offenders, and imposes the greatest financial burden on those who are least able to afford to pay.
“In fact, the business of many private probation companies is built largely on the willingness of courts to discriminate against poor offenders who can only afford to pay their fines in installments over time.”
The report includes accounts from Augusta residents such as Thomas Barrett, who was fined $200 for stealing a can of beer and ended up owing Sentinel more than $1,000 in monitoring fees.
“Many misdemeanor courts routinely jail probationers who say they cannot afford to pay what they owe – and they do so in reliance on the assurances of for-profit companies with a financial stake in every single one of those cases,” the report reads.
Sentinel is appealing a ruling by Richmond County Superior Court Judge Danny Craig in which he determined that two common practices – the extension of probation
sentences past the original terms and electronic monitoring – are practices state law specifically reserves for probation officers employed by the state. His ruling affects 13 civil lawsuits pending in Superior Court in Richmond and Columbia counties. The plaintiffs’ attorneys also have appealed Craig’s ruling that the use of private, for-profit probation companies is not unconstitutional.
In a 1983 decision in a case from Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to revoke a probation sentence and incarcerate a person merely because he cannot afford to pay a fine or fees.
Human Rights Watch found that judges are not making a determination whether people can pay before imposing fines and at probation revocation hearings. Many have given probation companies the job of determining indigency, but that is an inherent conflict of interest, the report says, because probationers’ fees are the company’s sole source of income.
Human Rights Watch also faults the courts for robo-signing probation revocation arrest warrants.
The organization estimates that in Georgia, probation companies take in at least $40 million in revenue from fees they charge to probationers in a single year. The group can only estimate because neither state nor local governments require the companies to report how much they make off probationers – which should be corrected, Human Rights Watch says.
The report especially criticized the practice of sentencing people to probation only because they are unable to pay off a fine in full, usually for a traffic offense.
For example: One offender pays the $1,200 fine in court on the day of his hearing and is done with the case; a second offender can afford $335 monthly payments, which means $140 in supervision fees and $1,340 in total; and a third offender can only afford to pay $85 per month, which means 24 months on probation, $840 in supervision fees and $2,040 in total.
In effect, the practice punishes those who can least afford it the most, the report states. Supporters of the practice contend that probationers pay for the “privilege” of being on probation as opposed to being in jail.
“From a legal standpoint, the logic underpinning this practice is fundamentally untenable. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that an offender cannot be jailed simply because they lack the means to pay a fine, so there is in fact no realistic sentence to probate in these cases at all. Yet each year, courts issue thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of arrest warrants for people who allegedly fail to make timely payments,” the report reads.