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Human Rights Watch finds private probation practices abusive

Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014 1:32 AM
Last updated 1:38 AM
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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.

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specsta
6631
Points
specsta 02/05/14 - 03:14 am
11
2
Their Crooked Ways

Absolutely disgusting.

The court system is an enemy to the poor. "For Profit" and "Private Probation Company" are two terms that should never merge together.

What are these judges thinking? Probation and jail for a traffic offense? Meanwhile murderers and rapists walk free.

The system stinks.

iaaffg
2994
Points
iaaffg 02/05/14 - 05:54 am
9
1
as it was it will always be:

as it was it will always be: one law for the rich, another for the rest of us. what we all need to do, it appears, is stay out of trouble so that we don't make the rich even richer by having to 'attend' one of these slicky, rip-off, should-be-illegal probation services.

IBeDogGone
3015
Points
IBeDogGone 02/05/14 - 06:43 am
10
1
This Cost The Rich

I do not understand how the more affluent citizens do not understand that this cost tax payers for housing in jail people who cannot meet the terms of their payments. These people are breaking the law but rather than making a for profit probation company money why cannot they pay their fees picking up litter and assisting with other projects that cost RC money. I know you would have to pay someone to supervise this project and all offenders would not follow through with this punishment, but atleast they have a choice before I provide room and board with my tax money.

karradur
2871
Points
karradur 02/05/14 - 07:58 am
10
1
Sentinel's problems are far worse than this article suggests.

The Human Rights Watch report doesn't just mention Sentinel in passing. It is the company most extensively covered in the report. Read it for yourself.

http://www.hrw.org/node/122851/section/1

teaparty
11313
Points
teaparty 02/05/14 - 09:07 am
2
5
I heard Al-Jazeera was one of
Unpublished

I heard Al-Jazeera was one of the main sources for news with the left now a days.

David Parker
7923
Points
David Parker 02/05/14 - 09:45 am
2
3
Thinking there is a way to

Thinking there is a way to keep the ruling class in check by stopping folks like Sentinel wouldn't be my first thought. They are way more entrenched and my guess is, wouldn't blink should the poor stop being bullied by the courts. Nah, this is just a way to keep everyone not in the club, uncomfortable and manic. By doing this, the divide is widened, the rich continue to be aloof, and the poor can go pound sand.

karradur
2871
Points
karradur 02/05/14 - 10:01 am
5
1
@teaparty

I strongly encourage you to visit Al-Jazeera and take a look around, especially in their reporting about the Obama administration and the Affordable Care Act. You will be very surprised by what you find.

karradur
2871
Points
karradur 02/05/14 - 10:17 am
4
3
From the report:

"By the time Thomas Barrett hit rock bottom, he had lost just about everything he had to addiction. One day in April 2012, he walked into a Georgia convenience store and was caught stealing a $2 can of beer. He pled guilty and was sentenced to a $200 fine and 12 months’ probation with Sentinel Offender Services. Richmond county State Court Judge David Watkins’ sentence also required Barrett to wear an alcohol monitoring ankle bracelet, a service administered by Sentinel.

Barrett spent more than a month in jail because he could not afford to pay an $80 “startup fee” to Sentinel. Eventually, he persuaded his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor to give him the money and was released.

Once free, Barrett faced a rapid accumulation of monitoring fees that he had no way of paying. He was unemployed, living in subsidized housing and subsisting largely off food stamps. He earned his entire cash income by selling his own blood plasma.

“You can donate plasma twice a week as long as you’re physically able to,” he explained. He could make up to $300 a month this way. “Basically what I did was, I’d donate as much plasma as I could and I took that money and I threw it on the leg monitor.” Still, he said, “It wasn’t enough.” His monitoring fees totaled some $360 a month and he had to use some of the plasma money to pay for his own basic needs.

Barrett said that when he explained his situation to his Sentinel probation officer, “They just said I need to pay what I could and when [the arrears] got to a certain amount, then I’d have to go in front of the judge and they were just pretty matter of fact about it.”

He started skipping meals — which saved money but sometimes left him too debilitated to donate plasma — and regularly went without household essentials like laundry detergent and toilet paper. In spite of all these efforts, by February 2013 Barrett owed Sentinel more than $1,000 in monitoring fees—more than five times the amount of the fine the court had sentenced him to. The company filed a petition with the court to revoke his probation.

“We went back in front of the judge and well, it didn’t work out in my favor,” he said. The judge told him he could stay out of jail if he paid several hundred dollars of what he owed Sentinel right then and there. “And I’m thinking, ‘But the whole problem is, I don’t have money.’ So they locked me up. And I just said, ‘Golly.’ I just felt like they kept putting me behind the eight ball.”

Thomas Barrett’s story has a Kafkaesque twist to it. The court’s decision to put him on alcohol monitoring in the first place served no discernible purpose because his probation did not include a condition that he refrain from consuming alcohol. As Augusta attorney Jack Long put it in an interview with Human Rights Watch, “He could have sat around and drank beer all day and it would have monitored that but it would not have been a violation of his probation.” "

And also from the report:

"Human Rights Watch documented one case in Augusta, Georgia where a court sentenced an offender to electronic monitoring through Sentinel even though it was actually impossible for him to comply. Quentone Moore is an ex-marine in Augusta who pled guilty to misdemeanor battery charges and was sentenced to probation with Sentinel. The court required him to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet that only works in conjunction with a landline telephone. But Mr. Moore was homeless at the time, and spent 52 days in jail simply because he had no residence where a landline telephone could be installed."

Congratulations, Augusta. You are supporting direct violations of the United States Constitution. (Please see Bearden v. Georgia, 1983.)

GiantsAllDay
9994
Points
GiantsAllDay 02/05/14 - 10:12 am
8
1
And to think the lawmakers in

And to think the lawmakers in Atlanta are considering a bill that would extend Sentinel's powers. The lobbyist's pockets are deep and the voters are going to let them get away with it.

teaparty
11313
Points
teaparty 02/05/14 - 10:58 am
2
6
"I strongly encourage you to
Unpublished

"I strongly encourage you to visit Al-Jazeera and take a look around, especially in their reporting about the Obama administration and the Affordable Care Act."
karradur, it is run by a bunch of terrorist so why would I care what they say. It just shows how far the left in this country has slid.

karradur
2871
Points
karradur 02/05/14 - 11:26 am
6
1
@teaparty

You literally know nothing about Al-Jazeera, do you.

Just because something has an Arabic name does not mean it is "a bunch of terrorist".

Little Lamb
47284
Points
Little Lamb 02/05/14 - 12:12 pm
7
1
Ethics and Morals

Sentinel's business model is unethical. The State of Georgia's authorization of Sentinel and Richmond County's contract with Sentinel are immoral.

You should not put someone in prison for inability to pay a debt. Freedom from debtor's prison was the inspiration for the formation of the colony of Georgia way back in the days of Oglethorpe. He would be turning over in his grave if he knew the Georgia legislature is considering expanding Sentinel's powers.

karradur
2871
Points
karradur 02/05/14 - 12:31 pm
4
0
@Little Lamb

Unethical, immoral, and illegal.

Little Lamb
47284
Points
Little Lamb 02/05/14 - 12:44 pm
3
2
Expand

You would think it would be illegal, Karradur, but the Ga. Gen. Assembly is considering a bill to expand Sentinel's powers. Here is an article worth reading carefully:

Expand Sentinel's Powers

From the story:

As Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Craig predicted at one of the court hearings concerning Sentinel Offender Services, efforts are underway to change the law governing private probation companies. This week, members of the Georgia House’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee advanced a bill that gives private, for-profit probation companies powers that Craig ruled they didn’t have under the current law.

In September, Craig ruled that two common practices – the extension of probation sentences past the original terms and electronic monitoring – are practices the state law specifically reserves for probation officers employed by the state. Sentinel is appealing Craig’s ruling, which affects 13 civil lawsuits pending in the Superior Courts 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 in principle, unconstitutional. “This Act is being enacted in response to the decision of the Superior Court of Richmond County in a series of cases in which the court found limitations on the use of such probation officers,” House Bill 837 reads.

While the authors contend the General Assembly didn’t intend for the law to keep certain powers from the for-profit probation firms, they aren’t waiting for the Supreme Court to decide what the law means.

karradur
2871
Points
karradur 02/05/14 - 12:48 pm
4
2
@Little Lamb

Oh, I am well aware what they are trying to do, but they are acting against a United States Supreme Court decision. I don't know if "illegal" is the right word, but it's definitely unconstitutional.

Dixieman
16049
Points
Dixieman 02/05/14 - 03:10 pm
4
2
Consider the source!!

Um, folks posting here -- "Human Rights Watch" is a trendy-lefty subversive anti-American organization which is biased against anything and everything we do in this country. Some of you posting here really should Google them and see where they're coming from! Not exactly an objective outfit...highly biased and suspect.

teaparty
11313
Points
teaparty 02/05/14 - 03:55 pm
2
3
"You literally know nothing
Unpublished

"You literally know nothing about Al-Jazeera, do you"
They might not be terrorist but they are obviously anti-American. But hey that describes much of the left including the American hating racist in the whitehouse.

galaxygrl
1270
Points
galaxygrl 02/05/14 - 03:57 pm
3
4
What is Right

They be a trendy-lefty subversive organization but a lot of people say that about the ACLU as well. The ACLU defends peoples' rights on bot hides of the aisle. These companies should be put out of business. Fir profit probation and prison systems are wrong. For profit prisons tell government we will run things for you as long as you keep the jails 90% full. Then they rape the family with fees to talk to them, buy them personal items and food. A two ounce bottle of shampoo costs $4. Ramen is .75. Of course they shouldn't break the laws but they do. Then,the taxpayers pay for them and their families do too, it is wrong. This is not what the country was founded on, we have lost our way.

galaxygrl
1270
Points
galaxygrl 02/05/14 - 04:00 pm
4
1
Teaparty

You better know what everyone is thinking, even those that hate America. How do you defeat an enemy if you don't know what they the ink? Bury your head in the sand and hope they leave? That usually works out well. I read at least 30 different news sites a day from far left to right and it can be eye opening. The really crazy part is that some of them are American.

teaparty
11313
Points
teaparty 02/05/14 - 05:23 pm
2
2
"I read at least 30 different
Unpublished

"I read at least 30 different news sites a day from far left to right and it can be eye opening."
I don't read 30 but I read several and I know who the real American enemy is. We have many foreign enemies but the main enemy this country has is the Marxists & communists that have taken over the democrat party. They want to remake this country and will destroy it if necessary.

specsta
6631
Points
specsta 02/05/14 - 05:29 pm
3
3
"For Profit" = Corruption and Injustice

This is why for-profit prisons and for-profit probation is inhumane and unconstitutional.

http://www.nationofchange.org/kids-cash-inside-one-nation-s-most-shockin...

What does it say about our society when we allow the courts and corrupt judges to destroy children?

There needs to be a national overhaul of the justice system, a complete re-boot. How can we let this continue to happen and call ourselves civilized human beings?

teaparty
11313
Points
teaparty 02/05/14 - 06:01 pm
3
2
"There needs to be a national
Unpublished

"There needs to be a national overhaul of the justice system, a complete re-boot."
I agree. We keep slapping the thugs on the hand and they keep getting worse.

GiantsAllDay
9994
Points
GiantsAllDay 02/05/14 - 07:57 pm
2
1
Please, can we stray from the

Please, can we stray from the original topic just a little bit more?

gargoyle
18762
Points
gargoyle 02/05/14 - 08:07 pm
2
2
Private prisons and probation

Private prisons and probation departments are poster children for crony capitalism . Politian's make sure they have deep pockets .

corgimom
34777
Points
corgimom 02/05/14 - 10:54 pm
3
2
Committing crimes is supposed

Committing crimes is supposed to cause hardship. Being in prison is also supposed to be difficult.

The best way to not be in that situation is to not commit crimes.

Thomas Barrett stole beer from a store. He knew it was wrong, he did it anyway. It doesn't matter if it was $2 or $20 or $200, there isn't a "minimum limit" that makes it ok to steal.

Are people supposed to be allowed to steal? I'm not allowed to, nobody else is allowed to, but he should be ok for him?

Truth Matters
7327
Points
Truth Matters 02/06/14 - 06:58 am
1
2
To me this is why the call to

To me this is why the call to privatize everything is so short-sited. People who break the law should face punishment, but it should not be more profitable to have people incarcerated than out working.

I would like to know if a single legislator or relative (down to the 10th cousin as far as I am concerned) has any $$ connection to these private companies___Financial campaign contributions, jobs for relatives, whatever.

Dixieman
16049
Points
Dixieman 02/06/14 - 10:10 am
1
2
There is nothing wrong with privatization.

It is a benefit to taxpayers, those who must deal with the government, etc. Often private companies can do the job better and more economically.
BUT: There must be a clear statement of the regulatory framework in which the private companies are to operate AND proper and periodic supervision by the government. These aspects are what seems to be lacking here and are causing the problem, not privatization per se.

jjohnson
20
Points
jjohnson 02/06/14 - 11:14 am
0
2
The best provider of services

The best provider of services and customer retention is usually the largest provider in their arenas. Sentinel must be doing something right if they have so many contracts and supervise the largest number of probationers. Please ask yourself why this news always just hits the Augusta Chronicle. Is it because someone pocket is getting lined for doing this bias article? Is it because there are so many people on probation in Augusta? This report states that their are thousands of warrants, which means, thousands of people on probation. There are 12 complaints found by the same attorney. Let just estimate their are 4000 people on probation on any given month. That is a .3% of the entire caseload that there is an allege problem. Try to have that kind of success at any other government/privatized business. I would also like to know if any of these complaints are legitimate. I would have liked for them to publish the court documents showing, just fees for the warrants for the indigent persons arrest. How many times has this person violated the law? Who made the determination to issues the warrant or have the person arrested? I am going to guess the Judges and not Sentinel.

David Parker
7923
Points
David Parker 02/06/14 - 04:29 pm
0
0
from teaparty

"They want to remake this country and will destroy it if necessary."

Is this their alternative response to just kicking the can down the road for your childrens' children to address? I'm ok with the collapse. I'd rather live through it than be part of what caused it for the next gen anyday. Just me

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