Council of State Court Judges wades into legal battle over private probation companies

Sunday, Aug 3, 2014 7:34 PM
Last updated Monday, Aug 4, 2014 1:22 AM
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Georgia’s State Court judges haven’t joined the legal battle over the use of for-profit probation companies, but their recent court filing mirrors the position taken by Sentinel Offender Services, the company at the center of the fight.

  FILE/STAFF
FILE/STAFF

Timeline

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Thirteen civil lawsuits filed in Richmond and Co­lum­­­bia counties against Sen­tinel are before the Geor­gia Supreme Court on appeal. A former chief justice of the court, Leah Ward Sears, was hired by the Council of State Court Judges to file friend-of-the-court briefs in the cases.

Superior Court Judge Dan­iel J. Craig ruled in Sep­tem­ber that the state statute governing probation services excludes certain powers from private companies hired by courts to manage people sentenced to probation for misdemeanors.

Specifically, he ruled that Sentinel is not empowered to charge a probationer for electronic monitoring or seek an arrest warrant for a probationer after the original sentence has expired.

Although the order only addresses Richmond and Columbia counties, according to the briefs filed on behalf of the 122 State Court judges, its impact will spread to every county in Georgia. The briefs say the order undermines and impedes the ability of State Court judges to impose and enforce probation sentences.

That a judicial council would file such briefs is unprecedented in Georgia, said Augusta attorney John “Jack” Long, who filed the civil rights lawsuits.

“The fact that the private probation industry has sought such assistance shows how weak their legal position before the Supreme Court is,” Long wrote in an e-mail. “This issue is all about money, money and more money that is being extracted from thousands of Georgians as part of a system of justice that is making Georgia the show piece for ‘cash register justice.’ This broken system is making Georgia a state that encourages ‘debtors prisons.’ ”

Long complained about the briefs to the Judicial Qualification Commission and asked it to weigh in on whether the State Court council crossed an ethical boundary.

The president of the council, Hall County State Court Judge Charles Wynne, said it would not be proper to comment on pending litigation.

The council has not yet taken action to address an audit report released in April that found courts and probation companies lacking in every regard. The report, prepared by the independent Georgia Depart­ment of Audits and Accounts, uncovered incidents of abuse by private, for-profit probation firms that mirror allegations lodged in the lawsuits against Sentinel.

LONG FILED an open records request with the State Court council seeking information about the payment for the briefs prepared by Sears. Sears left the Supreme Court in 2009 and became a partner in the prestigious mega-law firm of Schiff Hardin.

The council said it is not subject to the state’s open records law because it is a branch of the judiciary.

The Augusta Chronicle filed records requests with the city of Augusta to review legal bills for Richmond County’s State Court judges and the sheriff.

Local taxpayers have paid $94,996 so far for the judges’ and Sheriff Richard Roundtree’s legal representation in the Sen­ti­nel litigation, though they are not litigants in the cases.

Court documents filed by their attorneys took a similar position as the State Court council, saying Craig’s order undermines the judges and puts the sheriff in an untenable position of following the orders of the State Court or Superior Court.

LONG, SON JOHN R.B. Long and John Bell have been representing the plaintiffs for free. Long estimated the expenses in the suits at around $10,000. None of the plaintiffs could have afforded to take legal action on their own, he said. According to their lawsuits, they were jailed because they didn’t have the money to pay fines or probation fees.

If the plaintiffs prevail, Sentinel will have to refund any probation fees paid after the expiration of their original sentences and return any fees for electronic monitoring. If the plaintiffs prevail on class-action status, Sentinel will have to repay everyone in the class. The plaintiffs’ attorneys can petition the judge for a portion of those damages, Long said.

“The taxpayers of this state should be entitled to know how much of their taxpayer dollars are being spent to advance the cause of a private, for-profit company that has been given the authority to have individuals denied their freedom because they don’t pay a fee to them,” Long wrote.

Long has filed a cross-appeal of the portion of Craig’s ruling that found the use of private probation firms to perform a judicial function – on its face – not unconstitutional. It was how Sentinel carried out those duties that Craig found to be potentially unconstitutional and illegal.

PRIVATE PROBATION LITIGATION BACK STORY

BACKGROUND:

In late 2012, attorney John “Jack” Long began filing civil rights lawsuits against private probation company Sentinel Offender Services, alleging that its employees were responsible for false arrests and incarcerations.

DEVELOPMENTS:

• In September, Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Craig ruled partially in favor of the plaintiffs by finding state law excludes certain powers from private probation companies. Sentinel has appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

• In April, Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed legislation that would have extended private probation companies’ powers.

• On July 21, the state’s Council of State Court Judges filed a friend-of-the-court brief that takes the same position as Sentinel.

WHAT’S NEXT: Oral arguments are set for Sept. 22.

Comments (18) Add comment
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corgimom
32212
Points
corgimom 08/03/14 - 09:20 pm
2
7
Under the concept of equal

Under the concept of equal protection under the law, if I have to pay fines, so should everybody else.

Fines are either for everybody or nobody, not one standard for the poor and another one for everybody else.

If you don't have the money for the fines, don't break the law.

gargoyle
16906
Points
gargoyle 08/03/14 - 10:15 pm
5
0
Is Sentinel going to

Is Sentinel going to reimburse the tax payers for legal representation in their support ? A better question why did the sheriff and judges need it if they were not the named in the case ? The whole Private Probation/ Prison industry needs to be looked at for insider trading .

GiantsAllDay
9578
Points
GiantsAllDay 08/03/14 - 10:58 pm
8
1
Georgia is the only state

Georgia is the only state where traffic offenses are considered crimes. So DAMN backwards!!

Little Lamb
45869
Points
Little Lamb 08/04/14 - 08:20 am
4
0
State Court Judges Are The Criminals

It is absolutely wrong for these State Court judges to use taxpayer money to fund this friend of court filing. Judges are supposed to be impartial, not to take sides.

Little Lamb
45869
Points
Little Lamb 08/04/14 - 09:17 am
5
0
Logic

Let's look at the ruling:

Specifically, Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Craig ruled that Sentinel is not empowered to charge a probationer for electronic monitoring or seek an arrest warrant for a probationer after the original sentence has expired.

Okay, a judge sentences a person to a prison sentence for a specified time frame. The person begins serving time. Soon, he is eligible for early release, but he is released with probation conditions. While on probation, he racks up fees to pay for Sentinel employees to monitor his probation. Sentinel employees do not demand payment when services are rendered, and thus the fees mount up. At some point, the term of the original sentence is reached.

Here is the punch line, folks. When the term of the original sentence is reached, the person is supposed to be a free man (or woman). That would mean to become free of duty to pay the fees.

The United States of America was founded on a principle that people are not to be jailed for their financial debts to creditors. Such matters are to be adjudicated in civil courts, not criminal ones.

Sentinel is way out of line. The fact that they have bought off some judges with private contributions is what is criminal.

corgimom
32212
Points
corgimom 08/04/14 - 09:20 am
1
3
specsta, nobody is talking

specsta, nobody is talking about Federal laws.

And yes, I do realize. Lead a decent life and you don't have to worry about paying fines.

I've been driving for 41 years and I've never had an accident that was my fault. And it's not hard to do.

But this idea that poor people shouldn't have to pay fines but people that have worked hard, that have money, should- that's unconstitutional.

And John Baker is full of horse apples.

I know many fine, honorable people that don't break the law. What a ridiculous thing to say.

corgimom
32212
Points
corgimom 08/04/14 - 09:23 am
0
3
Before Sentinel, if you were

Before Sentinel, if you were fined and didn't pay it, you were jailed.

That's Georgia state law, and a court is not a creditor, and a legal fine is not a debt.

Would people prefer that they pay more taxes, so that the court can handle these fines, and tie up court personnel with clerical duties?

Shouldn't the person that committed the crime pay for the costs, instead of the taxpayers?

Little Lamb
45869
Points
Little Lamb 08/04/14 - 10:02 am
4
0
Fees

What Sentinel should do is to collect the fee when the person shows up for their probation-required visit, i.e., the person does not leave Sentinel's office until they pay the fee for the upcoming month. If they don't have the money, then have the sheriff's deputy haul the person off to jail for violating probation (not for a debt to Sentinel).

The trouble is that Sentinel allowed the fees to ride, piling up month after month until the probationer racks up a debt he cannot pay. Sentinel saw the error of their ways, and they sought out arrest warrants in order to collect the fees from family members or charities.

But it was wrong to put people in prison for debts to Sentinel when it was after the term for the original prison sentence was up. That ruling by Danny Craig put an end to Sentinel's little jail for money scam.

The ruling is correct and just.

Marinerman1
4813
Points
Marinerman1 08/04/14 - 10:56 am
4
0
Sentinel Is Out of Control - Shut Them Down

As I have said before, Sentinel is out of control, and out of bounds. They made over two million dollars in one month. This is insane. Furthermore, the Council of State Courts is out of bounds for hiring someone to file "friends of the court" filings. This entire thing smells like rotting fish, and Danny Craig has stirred things up, and rightfully so.

dichotomy
32819
Points
dichotomy 08/04/14 - 12:06 pm
4
0
Man....they just remove my

Man....they just remove my posts and don't even send me a nasty gram nowadays. Whatever it was I said that got it removed....I meant it.

Bottom line, I think contract probation is a terrible system in which force participants suffer MORE financial hardship than if it was court supervised probation and it run by people who DO NOT ANSWER TO ANYONE and ARE NOT HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR SCREW-UPS.

Little Lamb
45869
Points
Little Lamb 08/04/14 - 12:23 pm
3
1
Offense

I read your post, dichotomy, and it did not violate the terms of service, in my opinion. It must have offended a Sentinel employee.

Little Lamb
45869
Points
Little Lamb 08/04/14 - 12:27 pm
4
0
Thank you

From the story:

Augusta attorney Jack Long, his son John R.B. Long and John Bell have been representing the plaintiffs for free. Long estimated the expenses in the suits at around $10,000. None of the plaintiffs could have afforded to take legal action on their own, he said. According to their lawsuits, they were jailed because they didn’t have the money to pay fines or probation fees.

I think the citizens of Augusta owe these three attorneys a hearty thank you for their efforts in helping these probationers who have been abused by Sentinel.

Marinerman1
4813
Points
Marinerman1 08/04/14 - 12:47 pm
2
1
I Read It Too

I read it too, and I did not think anything was out of line. Yeah, must've wadded up some Sentinel employees panties.

happychimer
17476
Points
happychimer 08/04/14 - 01:11 pm
2
0
Many have paid fines to

Many have paid fines to Sentinel and then Sentinel have them arrested for nonpayment. All Sentinel is a money hungry scam.

GiantsAllDay
9578
Points
GiantsAllDay 08/04/14 - 02:47 pm
5
0
The Georgia legislature will

The Georgia legislature will NEVER downgrade traffic offenses from misdemeanors to infractions. That would take money out of the pockets of judges, lawyers and private probation companies. A while back I wrote a letter to both my state rep and senator, asking them to pass a bill that would decriminalize traffic offenses. They both wrote back and told me "not going to happen". I'm pretty sure that Georgia is the only state where going 56 in a 55 mile zone is a crime (misdemeanor). Well, I guess we could gather signatures on a state wide petition and pass a law using the ballot initiative. Oh wait a minute, this is Georgia, so that process isn't available to us either.

specsta
6505
Points
specsta 08/04/14 - 02:49 pm
0
0
Too Many Laws Make Too Many Criminals

I see that my post was removed as well, without explanation.

For those of you interested in the link, here it is:

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB1000142405270230431980457638960107...

AutumnLeaves
7636
Points
AutumnLeaves 08/04/14 - 02:59 pm
1
0
corgimom, most people try to

corgimom, most people try to lead decent moral lives, thankfully. Of course, sometimes, people do things that they wouldn't normally do, because someone has deceived them. For instance, when a married man pretends he isn't, to deceive a woman he is attracted to for some reason, whether he thinks it is love, lust, or simple greed. Should we fine the woman along with the man? Or just the man? She still broke the law, if she committed adultery, whether she was single or married to someone else at the time is moot. Things aren't always simple; or life would be a Shangri-La. In real life, it's usually the wronged wife that ends up paying somehow for her husband's indiscretions, ironically. As for Sentinel, what a tangled mess that is, rivaling what people make of their lives when they practice to deceive, and looks like it may be much more costly.

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