New probation firm to replace Sentinel in local courts

A new private probation company is set to replace Sen­tinel Offender Services in the superior courts of the Augusta Judicial Circuit.

The Columbia County Com­mis­sion has scheduled a vote on the contract Tuesday.

“We’ve reviewed it, we’re comfortable with it, and I think they’ll approve it tomorrow night,” County Ad­min­is­trator Scott Johnson said Mon­day.

Chief Judge J. Carlisle Over­street said the same contract will be considered by Rich­­mond and Burke counties.

A series of civil lawsuits have been filed against Sen­ti­nel. Sentinel had overseen those convicted of misdemeanor offenses in Superior Court since 2000, but it never had a written contract with the counties.

After Augusta attorney John Long sued Sentinel, contending in part that the company had no legal standing without a written contract, Sentinel withdrew its services.

Overstreet sought proposals from Sentinel and other probation companies. He said CSRA Probation Ser­vices was selected for a five-year contract. It has an approach that better fits what Superior Court judges want, Overstreet said, adding that the court is not in the money-making business.

Some of the allegations in the civil suits contend that Sentinel’s focus on increasing its fees led employees to wrongly extend probation sentences and seek arrest warrants.

CSRA Probation Services already has contracts to provide probation services to the Co­lum­bia County Magistrate Court and the Burke County State Court. Sentinel still has a contract to provide probation services to Richmond County State Court.

Under the contracts, the counties will not pay CSRA Pro­ba­tion Services. Its income will come through fees probationers pay.

The state of Georgia provides probation services only for people convicted of felonies. State law allows courts to contract with private firms to provide such services for people convicted of misdemeanors, or to create their own probation departments.

In Columbia County, staffers discussed starting a county probation service but decided against it, Johnson said.

“It’s been my recommen­dation so far that I didn’t want to create that big-government concept, adding 10 or 12 new employees and a whole new department,” he said. “I just didn’t see it as a break-even or save-money thing on probation, at least not for the first few years.”

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