Long also represented three other individuals who settled cases against Sentinel last fall for $200,000, $150,000 and $74,000, and he still has lawsuits against Sentinel pending in Columbia County Superior Court and in federal court in Brunswick.
He said his clients took the company’s settlement offers because — from their perspectives — it was a lot of money, even after legal expenses were deducted.
“These people have never had more than $2,000 to $3,000 in hand at one time. We’re dealing with poor folks who have not seen money,” Long said.
The Georgia Supreme court ruled decades ago that people couldn’t be jailed simply because they could not afford to pay a fine. Still, the practice continued. And in 2015, the state Legislature put the court ruling into law, saying people who can’t pay should be given an alternative punishment, like community service — not jailed.
Long said he believes that’s not enough and the law should include “specific criteria” for when a person is deemed too poor to pay.
In all, private probation companies in Georgia reported collecting $15.7 million in fees during the first nine months of last year.
Those probation fees have been at the core of multiple lawsuits.
Last month, the Southern Center for Human Rights settled for $130,000 with Sentinel over a practice in its Cleveland office of requiring probationers to submit to drug-testing that was not court ordered.
"Recent criminal justice reforms and litigation have discouraged the most egregious practices, but the private financial incentives that have led to so much bad behavior are still in place," said Southern Center attorney Sarah Geraghty. "In the end, the concept of privatized probation is fundamentally at odds with the fair administration of justice. We're going to continue to see cases like this as long as there is a profit-driven probation industry."
The Southern Center class action lawsuit was brought by two impoverished women who pleaded guilty to traffic offenses — 62-year-old Rita Luse and 45-year-old Marianne Ligocki.
Ligocki, stopped at a roadside checkpoint Feb. 10, 2015, was cited for driving on a suspended license. She pleaded guilty the following July and was fined $313.02. Sentinel charged her a $44-a-month supervision fee and another extra $15 each time they made her take an unnecessary urine test.
In March 2014, Luse pleaded guilty to driving without a license, was fined $775.75 and put on probation until she could pay. Like Ligocki, Luse gave Sentinel paid extra fees for supervision and drug testing, even though the White County Probate Court judge did not order it.
The two women said in their complaint that in addition to the extra financial burden, they were humiliated. They said they were forced to give urine samples while someone watched and sometimes in a room with the door open.
If they didn't give the sample and pay for it, the Sentinel probation officer told them, they would be jailed, according to the complaint.
After six months, Ligocki had paid $131 toward her fine and $305 to Sentinel for supervision and drug testing fees.
Luse kept up with her payment initially but halfway through her 12 months on probation she said she had no money to pay her supervision fee one month and asked of she could pay in in a “few days” when she got her next paycheck. Sentinel’s probation officer told the grandmother to borrow the $140 she owed for that month or go to jail, according to the complaint.
On Jan. 13, U.S. District Judge Richard Storey “conditionally” signed off on the agreement that Sentinel would pay $80,000 to reimburse Luse, Ligocki and any others who submitted to drug testing that was not court-ordered.
One of the cases paid out already was filed in the Augusta area.
Kathleen Hucks was arrested on Memorial Day in 2013 when a police officer stopped her as she was walking her dog. Though he had questions unrelated to her case, a background check showed an outstanding warrant from a years-old $156 debt to Sentinel. Hucks was held in jail 20 days even though she insisted that she owed nothing and had finished her 24-month probation sentenced for misdemeanor possession of marijuana and traffic offenses three years earlier.
Hucks said she has used what remained of her $150,000 award once her legal expense was paid to pay medical bills and to help her children.
Also, she said, “My house doesn’t look like I live in poverty anymore. I’m happy.”
Private probation in Georgia
Georgia leads the nation in the number of people on probation for felonies and misdemeanors, as well as for traffic offenses and city ordinance violations, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This research includes probationers supervised by a government or a private company.
There were 432,235 people on probation in Georgia, which is 5,570 out of every 100,000 people.
Texas was second with 378,937 people on probation.
Per capita, Rhode Island was second with 2,822 people per 100,000; the total was 23,920.