Spotlight falls on private probation companies over fees, supervision

In 2000, Georgia cleared the way for private companies to supervise low-level offenders, claiming it freed up overburdened state probation workers while costing taxpayers nothing.

But records reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show some in the industry have pocketed large fees while, in at least some cases, doing little to supervise those under their watch. And despite promises that taxpayers would pay nothing to supervise the offenders, they have footed the bill when the probationers are arrested and jailed because they owe money to the company, not the courts.

A string of lawsuits argue the system effectively criminalizes poverty and that some companies have illegally forced offenders to pay for things, such as electronic monitoring and drug testing, beyond what was ordered by the courts. Siding with that argument, a Georgia judge last year temporarily stopped the state’s largest private probation company from doing business in east Georgia. The Georgia Bureau of Investigations is also looking into whether another company has illegally tacked on fees.

Supporters say the companies provide a valuable public service. They handle large numbers of low-level offenders that court systems don’t have the resources to manage. The 34 probation companies that operate in Georgia supervised nearly 349,000 probations involving misdemeanors and traffic offenses over a period of nearly two years. In that time, they collected more than $200 million in fines and restitution returned to county coffers, according to records obtained by the AJC.

How much these companies profit is unknown, as the state doesn’t collect financial data from these privately held companies. A recent lawsuit provides a glimpse into what revenue might look like. It said the largest private probation company doing business in Georgia, Sentinel Offender Services, took in $1.8 million in June 2012. One-third of Sentinel’s 57 offices nationwide are in Georgia.

“We do a better job than the public probation officer,” said Robert McMichael, the chief executive officer of another company, Judicial Correction Services. He said the private sector has more time and resources to focus on misdemeanor probationers than the state does supervising felons on probation and even the local courts who attempt to run their own probation programs.

Fourteen lawsuits argue the state should rein in some of the industry’s practices.

This year, Georgia's top court is set to resolve whether private probation companies can charge some of its monitoring fees and force probationers into costly classes, and whether they have the authority to order arrests, something it does to collect unpaid fees. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it is unconstitutional to jail someone too poor to pay a court fine or fee.

Those suing the industry say private probation companies are using police, a taxpayer resource, as a collection agency.

“The practice offends the basic notion of due process,” Judge Daniel Craig wrote Sept. 16 when he temporarily stopped Sentinel from operating in Richmond and Columbia counties in east Georgia.

Disparate treatment

Millions of Georgians commit misdemeanor crimes each year, mainly traffic offenses.

It’s those who cannot pay their fines who wind up on probation, supervised in most cases by a private probation company.

They're allowed to pay their fines over time under the threat of jail if they don't. But it comes at a cost. Probationers face additional "supervision fees" that can double or triple their original fine. Failure to pay can mean jail, even years after the probationary period is over.

Kathleen Hucks is one such case.

Hucks was walking her dog early on Memorial Day 2013 when an officer stopped to question her in an unrelated case and discovered an outstanding warrant from a $156 debt to Sentinel from years earlier.

Hucks had completed 24 months on probation for misdemeanor possession of marijuana and traffic offenses in August 2008. She had also paid more than $3,200 in fines and restitution, and then continued to pay Sentinel a monthly supervision fee and for drug testing through the end of the year even though that was not part of the judge’s sentence, according to documents.

Hucks said she thought she owed Sentinel nothing until she was picked up more than 4 1/2 years later.

The 58-year-old woman was in jail for 20 days — at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1,000 plus medical care — until her husband could raise the $156 to resolve her debt to Sentinel.

“Georgia’s gone back to being a debtor’s prison state,” said attorney John Bell, who represents more than a dozen people who were jailed because the private companies said they still owed supervision fees.

Filling a need

While Sentinel declined to comment because of the pending lawsuit in Georgia, the founder of another company, Margie Greene of Georgia Corrections Corp., says the industry has been “demonized” for doing “what the law allows.”

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said he is satisfied with the private company supervising misdemeanor probationers in his area, but he also keeps a close eye on them. “They’re doing whatever it takes to keep that contract,” Sills said.

The Private Probation Association of Georgia, a trade group for the industry, said in an email that the companies “provide well-trained, highly regulated probation supervision,” and they work with “other professionals in the field” in areas such as counseling, alcohol and drug intervention, and cognitive rehabilitative therapy.

Law enforcement officials point to numbers as a reason private probation is popular.

A state officer assigned to oversee those on standard probation has an average caseload of 235 probationers, which means the less dangerous offenders get little attention. They say that by taking on the low-level offenders, the private companies allow state officers to spend more time on those who need more supervision.

Consequently, there are some discussions of tweaking the law so private companies could supervise first-time, nonviolent felons.

A hurdle to expansion could be resolving the lawsuits challenging these companies’ authority to levy some fees and order arrests.

In addition to the suits involving Sentinel, a GBI investigation remains open concerning another private probation company, East Georgia Correctional Services. The GBI came in at the request of the Covington Police Department in May 2012 because of suspicions that East Georgia Correctional Services had charged probationers more than the contract allowed.

Probationers, as noted in the 14 lawsuits pending in Richmond County, have to sometimes pay more than the courts required or risk jail.

“It’s nothing but a collection agency and they are using the jails,” said Augusta lawyer Jack Long, one of the attorneys bringing the suits. “These people don’t have money. That’s why they got locked up.”

One of Long’s clients, Nathan Mantooth, was stopped Jan. 23 for making an improper lane change. The 19-year-old immediately paid his $420 fine but was still put on probation until he completed a court-ordered defensive-driving class. He completed the course a week after the sentencing.

But three months later, Mantooth was pulled over for not wearing his seat belt and taken to jail when a police officer discovered a Feb. 13 arrest warrant. According to documents, Sentinel sought the warrant on the basis that Mantooth had violated the terms of his probation because he had not paid Sentinel’s supervision fees even after he finished his probation.

“He was carted off to jail, missed work and his mother had to pay the $103 shakedown fee to get her son released,” Long said.

According to the suits, some companies also have required the probationers to pay for electronic monitoring and drug testing even without orders from a court.

Several private probation owners and executives told the AJC they can only require monitoring or testing if the judge orders it.

Yet records contradict that.

Records show Hucks, for example, was required to take drug tests even though that box was not checked on the sentencing document outlining the terms of her probation.

Supervision, for the most part, consists of the probationer, or a relative or friend, paying the monthly supervision fee, critics say. In some cases, probationers are allowed to check in via email.

Stephen Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, issued a report on the industry which found that practice was widespread.

“All they do is take the check or take the money order from this person. They don’t provide any services,” Bright said. “It’s an absurd amount of money they take in. People are getting incredibly rich off these things.”

The fees vary greatly from place to place, depending on whether the government runs the probation program or if a private company has a contract to do it.

For example, in Cobb County State Court, which supervises its own probationers, charges $22 a month to supervise felony probationers.

The private companies, however, charge nearly double — $39. There are also add-on fees, and probationers can be required to pay even more for drug testing, electronic monitoring and classes.

Costs rise

As the fees add up, low-level offenders can fall into such deep financial holes they find themselves in jail because they can’t pay.

Take, for example, Clifford Hayes.

After completing 36 months of probation for a conviction on a misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence in 2010, Hayes moved to Tacoma, Wash.

Homeless, Hayes moved back to the Augusta area a year ago because he had family there. But when he went to the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office for a required background check so he could get a bed in a Salvation Army shelter, an outstanding warrant was discovered and the 47-year-old man was arrested.

His options were eight months in jail, at a cost to taxpayers of $11,520, or pay Sentinel the $847 debt he had accrued while in Washington state.

Two months later Craig ordered Hayes released.

Tony Moreland, the co-owner of Georgia Probation Services, said the industry is filling a need yet has an image problem.

“We have become the big, bad bogey man,” he said.

In response to allegations that some companies have used the threat of jail to get more money out of probationers by requiring extra services, Moreland said, “It doesn’t mean the whole industry is crooks and thugs.”