One of the civil lawsuits against private probation company Sentinel Offender Services will proceed to trial as a class-action case.
Friday’s ruling by Judge Daniel J. Craig means that anyone sentenced for a misdemeanor offense in Columbia County Superior Court may be a party to the lawsuit that seeks to recover from Sentinel all fees paid to the for-profit company.
The exception are those people who faced arrest on probation violation warrants obtained by Sentinel employees. As one of the plantiff’s attorneys John C. Bell Jr. explained during Friday’s hearings, potential legal claims for damages for those people might be more complex and differ from one case to the next and are determined by their attorneys.
Sentinel attorney Jeffrey Zachman tried to convince Craig that every former probationer will have a different type of claim that should prohibit class certification, and that determining who is excluded as a class member would be too difficult.
Craig disagreed. The plaintiffs’ attorneys had provided sufficient justification for bringing together the claims of the former Sentinel probationers under one legal action.
Craig initially ruled against the plaintiffs on their claim that because Sentinel never had a legal contract with Columbia County, it had no right to collect supervision fees from people sentenced for misdemeanor offenses in Columbia County Superior Court. But on appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed that ruling in November 2014.
In 2001, the state statute governing probation services transferred the responsibility for probation supervision from the state to local governments for misdemeanor and local ordinance violation cases. The law allows local governments to form in-house probation departments or to contract with private probation services companies.
If local governments chose to contract with private companies, they must have a contract with the chief judge that is approved by the local governing body.
Sentinel took over the job of supervising misdemeanor probationers sentenced in the Superior Courts of the Augusta Judicial Circuit in 2000, but the company never had a contract with Columbia County.
After attorney Jack Long began filing numerous civil lawsuits in 2012, Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet requested bids from private probation companies and Sentinel ended its services with the Superior Courts.
Sentinel continued to provide probation services in Richmond County State and Magistrate courts until this year when the county opened an in-house probation department.