Case challenges privatized probation

  • Follow Metro

The treatment of people facing minor criminal charges in Richmond County State Court is on trial in a higher court.

An attorney for Lisa Harrelson is challenging her State Court conviction and sentence. Attorney John "Jack" Long is also mounting a constitutional challenge to the use of a private probation company to collect fines for the county and fees for itself.

On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet heard from witnesses in Ms. Harrelson's petition, which names Richmond County State Court Solicitor Harold Jones and Sentinel Offender Services as defendants. Attorneys for Ms. Harrelson and Mr. Jones will have time to file briefs before the judge makes his decision. No attorney has appeared for Sentinel, which is in default.

Ms. Harrelson spent two days in the Richmond County Jail in July 2007 after she was found slumped over the steering wheel of her car at 13th Street and Walton Way.

Sgt. Pete Lamb of the DUI Task Force testified Tuesday that he arrested Ms. Harrelson for driving under the influence of drugs. According to court documents, she took prescription medication for mental health. Alcohol was not a factor in the arrest, Sgt. Lamb testified.

But in State Court on July 30, 2007, Ms. Harrelson pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol. She was fined $400, assessed an additional $251 in surcharges and sentenced to 12 months' probation. Every month she would be responsible for paying part of her fine and surcharges and paying Sentinel a $35 supervision fee.

The county has contracted with Sentinel to provide probationary services for about 10 years. Before that, county probation employees collected fines and fees.

Ms. Harrelson's petition challenges the legality of a private, for-profit company having powers generally limited to the court, and powers that enable the company to increase its fee collections. The suit says it is unconstitutional that Sentinel routinely requests expanded probation periods. The petition also challenges Sentinel's ability to have a probationer arrested for missing payments.

Crystal Page, the Augusta-area manager for Sentinel, testified that her officers often ask judges to run probation sentences consecutively because that gives the probationer more time to pay off fines and smaller monthly payments.

Her officers can file a probation violation arrest warrant based on missed payments, Ms. Page testified. But the probationer can make a payment to get out of jail. The amount is set by the judge, she said.

Ms. Harrelson has made a single $500 payment, Ms. Page testified. From that, $265 went toward payment of her fine and surcharges. Sentinel got $190 for probation fees.

Ms. Harrelson's petition, which seeks to set aside her conviction and sentence, also seeks the return of the $500.

No court reporter was present the day Ms. Harrelson pleaded guilty and received her sentence. Without a transcript, her attorney contends, there is no way to prove she pleaded guilty voluntarily and with a full understanding of the rights she relinquished.

According to the petition, Ms. Harrelson didn't have an attorney, and she didn't seek help from the public defender's office because she didn't have $50 for the application fee.

Mr. Jones testified that the procedures in Richmond County State Court, by prosecutors and by the judges, ensure that defendants understand their rights to legal counsel.

Judge Overstreet asked Mr. Jones whether he questioned the validity of the procedures, considering that Ms. Harrelson pleaded guilty to a crime she didn't commit. Mr. Jones said he could only speculate.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

Comments (15) Add comment
ADVISORY: Users are solely responsible for opinions they post here and for following agreed-upon rules of civility. Posts and comments do not reflect the views of this site. Posts and comments are automatically checked for inappropriate language, but readers might find some comments offensive or inaccurate. If you believe a comment violates our rules, click the "Flag as offensive" link below the comment.
clubsecrets1@aol.com
0
Points
clubsecrets1@aol.com 12/03/08 - 03:04 am
0
0
I would like to know how this

I would like to know how this turns out. Goes to show you how crooked the system is. The criminals are the ones running the sytem, from the cops on up.

christian134
1
Points
christian134 12/03/08 - 06:31 am
0
0
The fees and "other" fees

The fees and "other" fees mount up like a run-away high interest credit card...I look upon it as usury...

its a ham
0
Points
its a ham 12/03/08 - 07:25 am
0
0
The system works, but a woman

The system works, but a woman pled guilty to a crime she didn't commit? How is it fair that criminal defendants who are in jail don't get a court reporter, but criminal defendants who bond out ((and have private attorneys much of the time!)) get a court reporter at their sentencing?

AugustaVoter
2
Points
AugustaVoter 12/03/08 - 08:32 am
0
0
As a former deputy here in

As a former deputy here in Richmond County I have wondered how a private company can place an arrest warrant on someone without going through the courts and having a probable cause hearing first. I had several people I arrested with warrants issued by Sentinel and not signed off on by a judge. Sounds like a civil rights violation to me. It has never made sense to me. Plus the fees they charge cost just as much as the probation fine itself. In effect, doubling the fines.

AugustaVoter
2
Points
AugustaVoter 12/03/08 - 08:35 am
0
0
And what happened to the "if

And what happened to the "if you cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for you". Why would she have to pay a $50 app fee for a service that is supposed to be provided as a civil right? Oh yeah, I forgot, RCSO doesn't read Miranda rights when they arrest someone.

disssman
6
Points
disssman 12/03/08 - 09:15 am
0
0
I see a huge lawsuit against

I see a huge lawsuit against the state of Georgia comming down the pike and guess who will pay for it? What a shambles our legal system is in. But ask any politician and you will hear "We are a nation of laws", when in effect he means the legal system considers poor people guilty until proven innocent! What is this fee an indigent person must pay up front for assistance? Just another reason why you never see a lawyer being charged with anything!!

Queen4842
3
Points
Queen4842 12/03/08 - 10:05 am
0
0
YAY!!!!!! I applaud her for

YAY!!!!!! I applaud her for suing them. IT is about time. I personally have never been in trouble(knock on wood) but I do know some who have been run through the wringer by these folks.

disssman
6
Points
disssman 12/03/08 - 10:38 am
0
0
It just dawned on me, the

It just dawned on me, the County Commissioners probably adopted this program as a result of a multi million dollar study probably conducted by Sentinel? Oh well if they did we all need to quit gripping and follow our leaders, at least until the next election.

sanders23
0
Points
sanders23 12/03/08 - 12:10 pm
0
0
I want my 2K back too!! sign

I want my 2K back too!! sign me up

palomino9
0
Points
palomino9 12/03/08 - 12:15 pm
0
0
sentinel also receives money

sentinel also receives money from organizations inwhich probationers are required to serve community service. only organizations that pay sentinel are on the list of qualified community service organizations.

SaraEmigMeyers
0
Points
SaraEmigMeyers 12/03/08 - 12:18 pm
0
0
State law requires the public

State law requires the public defender's office to collect a $50 application fee. If you don't like it, contact your legislature.

corgimom
38301
Points
corgimom 12/03/08 - 07:30 pm
0
0
This was a lawsuit waiting to

This was a lawsuit waiting to happen, I have never understood how it is legal to privatize court fines and charge people to pay a court-ordered fine.

Craig Spinks
818
Points
Craig Spinks 12/04/08 - 03:14 am
0
0
Jack Long will set the

Jack Long will set the Richmond County Commission and Sentinel Offender Services straight.

TakeAstand
13
Points
TakeAstand 12/06/08 - 05:11 pm
0
0
The better lawsuit here would

The better lawsuit here would be to file against those who make the laws that give a person a measley $400 fine and a year probation for DUI!!!!!

corgimom
38301
Points
corgimom 12/09/08 - 03:50 pm
0
0
"Ms. Harrelson's petition

"Ms. Harrelson's petition challenges the legality of a private, for-profit company having powers generally limited to the court, and powers that enable the company to increase its fee collections. The suit says it is unconstitutional that Sentinel routinely requests expanded probation periods. The petition also challenges Sentinel's ability to have a probationer arrested for missing payments". It also has to do with the petitioner pleading guilty for driving under the influence of alcohol but the arresting officer said that alcohol was NOT A FACTOR in her arrest. So if she wasn't arrested for DUI of alcohol, how does she wind up pleading guilty of it? If she was arrested for DUI of drugs, why wasn't she convicted of that? That's what this is about- did she receive a fair trial and was she falsely convicted of something.

Back to Top

Search Augusta jobs