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.