The idea of Richmond County State Court awarding a 2014 contract to Sentinel Offender Services, the private probation company that is currently facing several lawsuits challenging whether private misdemeanor probation is even constitutional, is not sitting well with some Augusta commissioners.
“I know that, according to media reports, this particular company has several outstanding and pending lawsuits,” Augusta Commissioner Bill Lockett said during the city’s Public Safety Committee meeting on August 26. “What has been done or what will be done to make sure that this government does not assume any liability in any of these particular cases?”
Chief State Court Judge Richard Slaby, who went before the committee to request the 2014 contract be approved, said he was not concerned about the lawsuits filed against Sentinel because they deal with the constitutionality of the entire private probation services.
“It also deals with whether state courts can use electronic monitoring services,” Slaby said. “I don’t know what the outcome of those lawsuits will be. Of course, obviously, if the court rules that private probation are unconstitutional those matters will be appealed, no matter which way the judge rules.
“But if the judge rules it is unconstitutional and the Supreme Court upholds that, then the county is looking at one heck of a cost insofar as providing probation services. Hopefully, that won’t be the case.”
But Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith said the concerns over Sentinel’s service to Richmond County goes beyond simply the argument of whether or not private probation is unconstitutional.
“Judge Slaby, there are 10 lawsuits, if I’m correct, against Sentinel,” Smith said. “And most of what it involves is the violation of the Eighth Amendment, which says we won’t put people in debtors’ prison.”
After being contacted by some of the attorneys involved in the Sentinel cases, Smith said he had major concerns about renewing the company’s contract.
“At this point, we have been notified by attorneys representing these people that during the course of their business with Sentinel, their probation fees and supervising fees have turned out to be $1,000 and the person’s original fine was $300.”
Slaby said he was not familiar with such claims against Sentinel and that judges have the right to waive probation fees if they feel it is appropriate.
“Sentinel has went and got warrants for people and put people in jail for not paying their portion of the fees, which is their (Sentinel’s) profit,” Smith said. “And I think that is the reason Columbia County and the Superior Court both have quit using Sentinel, isn’t that correct?”
Again, Slaby said he was not sure why both Columbia County and the Superior Court were no longer using Sentinel’s services.
In those cases, Sentinel did provide probation services for the Superior Courts of Richmond and Columbia counties, but those duties were awarded to Evans-based CSRA Probation Services when Sentinel pulled out after it later discovered that it did not have a valid contract with the courts.
With so much controversy surrounding Sentinel’s services, Smith told the commission that it would be wise for the state court to begin looking for another private probation company.
“The legislature passed laws this past year to stop predatory lending where poor people were targeted with high interest rates where the interest became more than the amount that was borrowed,” Smith said. “Certainly, that applies in this particular case that Sentinel has done where the fine is one thing and it turns out they owe more in probation and supervision fees than the original fine.”
“I don’t see any difference between predatory lending and what Sentinel has done, do you?” Smith asked Slaby.
Slaby said he could not comment on such accusations.
“I don’t know what they’ve done,” Slaby responded. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
There are cases where probation fees could be more than the fine, but Slaby insisted that is not necessarily Sentinel’s fault.
“An individual who has been placed on probation has got certain responsibilities to comply with the terms of the probation,” Slaby said. “But if you’ve got a particular instance, I’ll be glad to look at it.”
However, Slaby explained that all of the judges in the state court have been satisfied with Sentinel’s services.
“We have all agreed that we would like to continue utilizing them,” he told the committee members. “They have always been very responsive to us. They have always been very diligent and professional in how they have dealt with us. Periodically, people complain about things. We have always looked into those complaints and we have always found a resolution or quite frankly found they aren’t valid.”
Slaby said the State Court of Richmond County has utilized Sentinel since 1997 and the judges feel comfortable extending its contract with the company.
“It is a year-to-year agreement,” Slaby said. “There are termination provisions in the contract. And there are limitations to the amount you can charge for probation fees. Some contracts don’t have that.”
From time to time, there are reports about people being abused by the system, but Slaby said he doesn’t tolerate such actions.
“None of us will tolerate anybody being treated any other way than with courtesy,” Slaby said. “I’m not going tolerate them being abusive with people. I don’t believe in that. I believe you can accomplish a lot more by taking a more gentle tone with people.”
“So, if anything comes to light that we don’t like,” Slaby added, “there are provisions for termination.”
The motion to approve Sentinel’s contract with the state court failed to get the required three votes, with commissioners Grady Smith and Lockett approving the contract and Donnie Smith voting against it. Commissioner Alvin Mason was absent from the meeting. The contract will go before the full commission on September 3.
“I guess the thing that concerns me as a taxpayer is, if our Superior Courts have no confidence in Sentinel, and Columbia County has no confidence in Sentinel, then why are we still having confidence in Sentinel?” Donnie Smith asked. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”