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Judge rules hearing, jail sentence unlawful

Lawyers argue original plea unconstitutional

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Bigger constitutional issues in Hills McGee's case can wait, a judge ruled Wednesday, setting the Augusta man free.

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Augusta attorney Jack Long questions his client, Hills McGee. McGee was sentenced to two months in jail because he could not pay his private probation complany's supervision fee.  Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Augusta attorney Jack Long questions his client, Hills McGee. McGee was sentenced to two months in jail because he could not pay his private probation complany's supervision fee.


Superior Court Judge Michael N. Annis granted a habeas petition filed on McGee's behalf, agreeing that his incarceration was unlawful.

McGee had been sentenced in Richmond County State Court on Jan. 13 to pay $186 he owed to a private probation company -- Sentinel Offender Services -- or spend two months in jail.

"I was horrified," Assistant Public Defender Lindsey Hix said of the 30-second proceeding that sent McGee to jail. McGee didn't get a chance to contest the probation violation petition against him, ask for an attorney or say anything, she said.

Attorneys John B. Long, A. Montague Miller and John C. Bell volunteered to represent McGee in the habeas proceeding. They argued, and Annis agreed, that McGee's original guilty plea and the probation violation hearing were unconstitutional. McGee didn't have all the information needed to make an informed decision before giving up his right to an attorney, Annis ruled.

"I wonder how many people are in jail ... because they didn't know they had a right to an attorney without paying $50?" Annis said.

The law establishing the state's public defender system imposes a $50 application fee for any person who asks for a public defender. However, the law also states the judge will waive the $50 fee if a defendant cannot pay it.

On Wednesday, attorneys for the solicitor and Sentinel could not produce evidence that defendants are told about the fee waiver.

McGee said he didn't have $50 so he waived his right to an attorney and pleaded guilty in October 2008 to public drunkenness and obstruction of a law enforcement officer. He was sentenced to 24 months probation, and ordered to pay $270 in fines and surcharges and a $39 monthly probation supervision fee.

In January 2009, McGee was allowed to convert the court fines into community service because he couldn't pay.

McGee testified his only income is a $243 monthly disability check from the Department of Veterans Affairs. He completed his community service at Lake Olmstead, he said.

Although witnesses testified Wednesday that probationers no longer have to report to Sentinel once they pay their fines and comply with any other court-ordered conditions, a probation violation warrant for McGee's arrest was issued Nov. 9 stating McGee failed to pay $186 and didn't report to his probation officer.

McGee was arrested Jan. 12.

His sister, Margaret Jones, said her brother is incapable of understanding court proceedings because he is mentally ill -- bipolar and schizophrenic.

Attorneys representing acting State Court Solicitor P.J. Campanaro and Sentinel -- who were named as defendants in the habeas petition, along with Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength -- contended the normal procedures in Richmond County State Court do safeguard defendants' rights.

Campanaro testified that someone with the public defender's office makes a speech at the beginning of each court session about the right to an attorney and fee waiver. Every defendant is given what's called a waiver of rights form that describes the rights to trial and to representation. The judge also goes over those rights, she said.

Andrew MacKenzie, the interim general counsel for Augusta who represents Campanaro, contended that McGee's signature on the waiver of rights form proves that he understood.

Pressed by the judge to show where on the form it says the $50 application fee for a public defender could be waived, MacKenzie pointed to the section that states a public defender can be appointed if a defendant is indigent.

"You can't tell someone 50 percent of their rights and say that's knowing," the judge said.

The issue of the $50 application fee is being challenged on constitutional grounds by McGee's attorneys.

They are also challenging the constitutionality of the state law that legalized the hiring of for-profit companies to provide probation services for state and municipal courts.

Annis agreed to postpone the hearing on those issues to give the city's and Sentinel's attorneys time to prepare. The habeas petition was filed Friday.

The sheriff will be dropped from the case because of McGee's release from jail.

Misdemeanor charges

Richmond County sheriff's Maj. Gene Johnson testified that 187 of the 992 inmates in jail Wednesday were there because of misdemeanor charges or convictions, such as Hills McGee. Running the jail consumes 32 percent of the total sheriff's budget, Johnson said. "He's somebody who's eating up our budget, that's how I look at it."

Comments (27) Add comment
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BeaufordT
0
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BeaufordT 01/28/10 - 04:22 am
0
0
Well done, Judge Annis. This

Well done, Judge Annis. This decision is certainly a step in the right direction.

Georgiajack
0
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Georgiajack 01/28/10 - 06:06 am
0
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Even if you don't care that

Even if you don't care that they lock up thousands of people who can't pay private probation fees and fines, just think how much it costs (maybe $50 a day) to help collect money for a private company--that company does not help pay the cost of using the jail and courts to collect their money. It is about time something was done.

BamaMan
2677
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BamaMan 01/28/10 - 06:34 am
0
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Is this company the only one

Is this company the only one that people go to for probation? Sounds like there needs to be some competition.

nofrills
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nofrills 01/28/10 - 06:35 am
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The Sentinel is costing

The Sentinel is costing augusta a fortune and all top of that the people who work there think they can talk to you like your trash. Well done Judge Annis now release the remaining people who have fell through this same crack.Make the Sentinel accountable for their mistakes and lies.

Riverman1
93336
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Riverman1 01/28/10 - 06:41 am
0
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Free Hills McGee!!!

Free Hills McGee!!!

justus4
113
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justus4 01/28/10 - 07:00 am
0
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Here we got a Vet, who meets
Unpublished

Here we got a Vet, who meets the conditions of being poor, then his country, who has a Constitution but only yaps about it when it is convenient, is detaining mostly U know who because of making a profit. And this has been going on since when? How much money has being paid to this illegal outfit and who is the legal brains behind it? Nothing new here for those who have served and seen first-hand the abuses that come with that oath. Well, hopefully this guy can be saved, but the establishment of such a agency was known to be against the law, but U know who said, "they aren't smart enough to know and besides, when it's found out, we'll be long gone" which makes them correct. Great country, eh?

Taylor B
5
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Taylor B 01/28/10 - 07:39 am
0
0
Wow justus, I kinda agree

Wow justus, I kinda agree with you. I don't think this has anything to do with him being a veteran, though. I just wonder how many more inmates are in the same boat. When is the government going to do more than just build more jails? Why don't we take some of this abundant "study money" that Richmond County always seem to have laying around and study this? It might actually save us money doing so.

disssman
6
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disssman 01/28/10 - 08:05 am
0
0
It would appear that

It would appear that releasing people like Mcgee would be a windfall and save the sheriff over six percent of his expenses. I still wonder about the amount charged for a fee. Fines are fixed for punishment, but fees are supposed to cover only actual expenses and a profit is not a necessary expense. Bekieve me if they could legally charge arbitary amounts for fees, then your drivers license would be a thousand dollars or more, just so they could balance budgets.

alsway
0
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alsway 01/28/10 - 08:10 am
0
0
My question is.....how can a

My question is.....how can a company like Sentinal use "jail time" over a person to collect a debt owed to them (not owed to the city/court mind you)? I think every other entity that has bed debt owed has to persue it through civil court. If there is a law that allows this, it should be changed!

themaninthemirror
0
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themaninthemirror 01/28/10 - 08:33 am
0
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My initial stance on this

My initial stance on this issue was on the court's side, but after reading this article, I see where someone in this man's position could be easily mislead. It is apparent he was railroaded.

themaninthemirror
0
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themaninthemirror 01/28/10 - 08:36 am
0
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My inital stance on this

My inital stance on this issue was on the courts side. However, after reading this article I can see how a defendant such as this one could be easily mislead. It is apparent he was railroaded.

ThisWorld
0
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ThisWorld 01/28/10 - 08:54 am
0
0
Thank you your "HONOR".

Thank you your "HONOR". Hopefully your decission will put a stop to this illegal and unconstitutional racket that was somehow made legal by some self-serving money hungary officials. I hope and pray that your sound judgement in this matter will be the beginning of the end of Sentinel.

veritas14
0
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veritas14 01/28/10 - 08:58 am
0
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A solution springs to mind

A solution springs to mind here. Change the mailing address of McGee's disability check to the Sheriffs office. Deposit $243 into the Sheriffs account and have Mcgee show up in person to get his check for $213 every month. Sheriffs office gets its 30 bucks, McGee gets his check and meets the terms of his probation. Would work for all government assistance checks and those who hold a job could also be included.

veritas14
0
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veritas14 01/28/10 - 09:07 am
0
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A quick calculation is that

A quick calculation is that this would save the Sheriffs office a little over $3 million a year at the rate of $45 a day per inmate. More than enough to hire three people with an accouting type background to supervise the program and still leave the Sheriff with a sizable reduction in his budget.

alsway
0
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alsway 01/28/10 - 10:19 am
0
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veriyas, It is not money owed

veriyas, It is not money owed to the sheriff, but to Sentinal for "supervision fee's". That is why I am asking why Sentinal can send someone to jail for a debt owed to them........and why that is legal. I agree that according to the judgement of the court, he owes this money to Sentinal....just that they can order his arrest because he has not paid them is what bothers me.

anotherlook
101
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anotherlook 01/28/10 - 10:22 am
0
0
I seems that the efforts made

I seems that the efforts made here to privatize probation did not have the expected outcome desired. This poor man is a veteran with a "dual diagnosis" and needs to have some intensive treatment and rehabilitation. We have got to stop treating our servicepersons like toys that we discard when they are broken! We owe them more than this! Incarceration could have even worsened his condition. Where would Richmond county be if he had a crisis and killed himself? I don't think Sentinel would have been the one being sued since the work was contracted out to them. No. I think this would have rested solely on the shoulders of the Richmond county taxpayers. Just one more burden heaped upon all the rest.

reader54
324
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reader54 01/28/10 - 10:47 am
0
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When you have private for

When you have private for profit prisons and probation, you can be assurred that there will be many abuses of our constitution. You have The Corrections Corporation of America, Wackenhut and others who are prospering in the prison system. This concept is morally corrupt on the surface and criminally corrupt at the core. I thought that we left behind "debtors prison" when our nation was founded. Now, jails and prisons are our new mental institutions for the poor and unconnected.

veritas14
0
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veritas14 01/28/10 - 04:45 pm
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Alsway, I understand the

Alsway, I understand the money is currently owed to Sentinel Offender Services. My little scenario was for future probationers handled by the Sheriffs department or the probation department of the Sheriffs office. Sentinel would be out of the picture and the monies collected would go to city funds rather than corporate profits. Perhaps I could have made that clearer in my posting.

corgimom
38278
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corgimom 01/28/10 - 08:06 pm
0
0
I'm confused. Don't most of

I'm confused. Don't most of you on here complain about the drunks, the druggies, and the homeless that roam RC? So if they get arrested for public drunkenness, you don't like that, but you don't like dealing with the drunks either? What would you like the sheriff's office to do? What if he was causing a disturbance? And "he needs intensive treatment"? There is no cure for schizophrenia. Most schizophrenics that live on their own stop taking their meds. Should he be confined to a mental facility for the rest of his life because he was drunk in public?

baronvonreich
1
Points
baronvonreich 01/28/10 - 09:45 pm
0
0
There is nothing

There is nothing unconstitutional about Sentinel's practices. They are a gubmint contractor because of the overwhelming number and costs of unlawful people in the CSRA. If you don't want to deal with them and fine their fees then don't break laws. It is quite simple and it is called personal responsibility.

jamesj
0
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jamesj 01/29/10 - 04:15 am
0
0
baronvonreich, I think it is

baronvonreich, I think it is unconstitutional, I think the government overstepped its boundaries by allowing this form of extortion. Of course, that’s my opinion and its actually for the supreme court to decide. Any other private company cannot have you arrested for not paying a debt. If they could American express Citi bank and Capitol One would have half of the USA locked up.

reader54
324
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reader54 01/29/10 - 04:22 am
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Corgimom: I am confused as

Corgimom: I am confused as well. Should we treat the mentally ill the same as skid row bums? Or only the poor ones? A veteran with a severe mental condition gets $243 a month? No, he shouldn't be confined for the rest of his life in a mental or penal institution but a group home or such to monitor and assist might just be more humane. Some people deserve compassion not contempt. I guess that we should consider these things before we invade other countries unneccesarily.

trouble706isBack
0
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trouble706isBack 01/29/10 - 09:16 am
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Leave it to corgimom.....Now,

Leave it to corgimom.....Now, let's discuss whether there was any basis for him being arrested in the first place. In Richmond county, people are arrested for Public Drunkenness at the deputies discretion. There is no test (breathalyzer, blood, etc.) administered to determine if the person is actually intoxicated.
If the deputy decides he wants to arrest you for public drunkenness, you are arrested. This man has mental conditions. Wonder if those mental conditions could have made the deputy think he was drunk when POSSIBLY he had not been drinking at all.....
Seems POSSIBLE to me.

robbie1
0
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robbie1 01/29/10 - 10:13 am
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0
I am glad to see that this

I am glad to see that this gentleman will get a chance to address the probation violation in court. The thought that one person (probation office worker) has the ability to have people jailed without a hearing is scary. Glad to see that the judge adressed this.

I hope that the $50 fee for applying for a public defender is addressed. This is sickening to me. Let's be honest, some of the folks who need a public defender are not well educated, so will not catch the wording on some obscure form in the myriad of paperwork that they have shoved at them. "A fee to apply" for a Constitutional right... What's next? The poll tax coming back?

angelkeefer
0
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angelkeefer 01/29/10 - 02:49 pm
0
0
I always thought that when

I always thought that when you are arreted they say if you can't afford an attorny one willbe appointed to you. I live on a fixed income and I don't plan on being arrested anytime soon but. This is scarry. I don't like the fact that there are private saervices that charge these fees only one doller goes towards the fine goes to the court the rest goes to Sentilel. They'er making a killing. The poor are the victim. What ever you do don;t get a speeding ticket that you can't pay or your in trhe same boat. Pay the fine or go to jail

mable8
2
Points
mable8 01/30/10 - 02:34 am
0
0
Another reason that these

Another reason that these "prison-for-profit" and "supervision-for-profit" agencies should go. If the State wants someone in jail or supervised by probation/parole officers, then the appropriate State agencies should be in charge, not some outside group that is interested in making a profit off someone's sentence. Private correctional agencies have the highest rate for brutality against inmates, poor conditions, and escapes of some very serious felons.

mefirst
0
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mefirst 01/31/10 - 05:43 pm
0
0
There are many poor and

There are many poor and indigent persons, both Black and White who have fallen prey to this kind of system. Sentinel, and other companies like it, have created a truly monstrous entity that portrays itself as a "Public Service", when in actuality it only serves to strip cash from an already busted municipal government. Under the guise of helping to relieve the city of an overburdened probationary service, what has happened is that they have found a way to milk the system, and the unknowing public, of literally, reams of cash. The fact of the matter is, Sentinel has created a cash cow for itself, and the city officials who conspired with it, to foist this crime off on the general public.The idea that a person,poor,or not,can be jailed by a non-judicial arm of government for failure to pay monies above and beyond court appointed fines is ludicrous. To think that anyone can be held up by a system like this boggles the mind, and the City should certainly re-think it's position on retaining this type of service by this type of ripoff company and put the handling of criminal case disposition back into the hands of qualified city officials.

helpicantfindthespacebar
1
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helpicantfindthespacebar 02/04/10 - 01:08 am
0
0
What makes any of you think

What makes any of you think that Sentinel knew this man was living on public assistance, mentally ill or a veteran? My guess is that he showed up (on the computer) as being case #blah blah, who hadn't reported or paid a fine. You make it sound like Sentinel personally went after HIM. I also don't understand some people yapping about Sentinel sending this man to jail. They don't issue warrants, they report errant probationers and a warrant is issued by the courts. I agree with those that think our Veterans should be treated far better than they are. The government should be ashamed to let a schizophrenic veteran live like that. He deserves better. That being said, after he was arrested and brought before a judge it was determined that he should be released. That's the JUDGE'S job, and not for any probation officer (public or private) to decide. If the probation officers had to take into account every hard luck story handed to them, they'd do nothing but listen to BS all day from people who didn't want to pay the fines imposed and half of the offenders have nice cars, hair and nails done and toting designer (ok, some are knock-offs) handbags. Ask ANYONE incarcerated at the RC Jail... they are innocent, were framed, or locked up for something that their identical 'cousin' did.

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