Next week, 12 Georgians — all of them poor — will receive $1.5 million to end a years-long lawsuit against the state’s largest private probation provider over illegally throwing them in jail for not paying supervision fees and fines for traffic offenses or minor crimes like public intoxication.
The settlement is the latest in a series of payouts by Sentinel Offender Services, totaling just over $2 million, to settle multiple lawsuits over illegal jailing. That’s equivalent to about two-thirds of the $3.4 million in fees the California-based company collected in the first nine months of last year.
“Probation supervision fees and other fees can be very lucrative in Georgia and very detrimental to people of limited means,” said Jack Long, an Augusta attorney who represents the plaintiffs in the recent case and who has been one of the biggest critics of the private probation industry.
People who can’t afford right away to pay fines for traffic offenses, misdemeanors and city ordinance violations are put on probation until they can pay off that debt. But in the recent lawsuit, probationers also had to pay $44-a-month supervision fees and cover the costs of drug testing or electronic monitoring even if a judge did not order it.
Sentinel officials in California did not return several messages left over three days. The attorneys representing the company in Georgia also did not return messages. But in court filings responding to the suits, Sentinel denied it did anything wrong.
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.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.