Bainbridge settles private probation suit filed by Southern Center

The city of Bainbridge has agreed to settle a lawsuit that accused the city and a probation company of wrongfully detaining and demanding payments from poor people found guilty of misdemeanors.

The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed the lawsuit in April, announced the settlement Monday.

"We are grateful to the city Bainbridge for doing the right thing when faced with a lawsuit about its unfair practices in the city court," said Sarah Geraghty, a Southern Center attorney. "When the lawsuit was filed, the city recognized there was a problem and took steps to fix the problem."

The city of Pelham and Red Hills Community Probation were also named as defendants in the lawsuit. Those parties have not yet settled. Red Hills closed down its operation in May after the lawsuit was filed.

"We're hopeful that we'll be able to come to a similar resolution with the city of Pelham, which had equally egregious violations of people's constitutional rights," Geraghty said.

Credit: Carrie Teegardin

Credit: Carrie Teegardin

Under the settlement, Bainbridge Municipal Court agreed to reform many of its policies and procedures related to collecting payments from people placed on probation to pay off fines for traffic tickets and other misdemeanors.  Courts across Georgia use private probation companies to collect misdemeanor fine payments, over time, from low-income people.

"We are very pleased to have this matter settled and are grateful to the Southern Center for Human Rights for bringing a situation we were previously unaware of to our attention,"  Bainbridge City Manager Chris Hobby said Monday in a statement to the AJC. "We very much enjoyed working with the Southern Center personnel to resolve this matter.  We are committed to moving forward in an efficient and legally correct manner. "

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote about probation-related abuses in Bainbridge and Pelham in its coverage of the state's troubled misdemeanor probation system.

"These two city courts were being operated in violation of the Constitution of the United States and they were being used as money collection mechanisms for the city and a private probation company," Geraghty.  "The city and the company were prioritizing the collection of money over the interest of justice and were sending people to jail because they didn't have enough money to pay their city court fines on the day of court."

The lawsuit alleges that one plaintiff from Pelham, Adel Edwards, was given a $500 fine for burning leaves in his yard without a permit. Edwards, who is indigent, was placed on probation by the Pelham Municipal Court to give him a year to pay off the fine. The probation officers told Edwards that with probation fees included he would owe a total of $1,028 and would have to make an immediate payment.

Edwards, whose story was included in the AJC's coverage this year, did not have any money and was taken to jail until a friend was able to bring $250 so he could be released, the suit alleges.

Vera Cheeks, also a plaintiff, was fined $135 for a stop sign violation in Bainbridge. Probation fees upped her total amount owed to $267. Cheeks was told she would go to jail unless she paid $50 immediately. While Cheeks was detained, her fiance pawned her engagement ring and a piece of lawn equipment to get the money for her release. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Cheeks' case in November.

Credit: Carrie Teegardin

Credit: Carrie Teegardin

The Southern Center said the settlement terms require Bainbridge Municipal Court to stop detaining people to coerce them to make payments on the day they go to court. The settlement also requires the court to adopt changes that will make sure it follows the state and federal laws for handling indigent defendants.

A new Georgia law took effect in July requiring changes in misdemeanor probation statewide. Geraghty said it's unclear whether local courts across the state have changed their operations.

"The passage of the law was a big step in the right direction," Geraghty said, "but we do not yet know whether the law is being followed."