Superior Court Judge Daniel Craig is standing firm.
Despite receiving criticism from Richmond County State Court judges that his September 16 ruling on the treatment of misdemeanor probationers “completely disrupts, and, for all practical purposes, shuts down” their court, Craig told attorneys representing Sentinel Offender Services last week that he was not going to lift the restrictions he previously imposed upon the private probation company.
While Craig granted Sentinel a stay of his ruling until the company’s attorneys could appeal his decision to the Georgia Supreme Court, he insisted that the private probation company still could not use electronic monitoring in misdemeanor cases or extend probation sentences beyond their original terms.
“At some point, the Georgia Supreme Court is going to weigh in on these cases,” Jim Ellington, an attorney representing Sentinel, told the court on September 26. “And that’s where we are right now.”
After reviewing 13 lawsuits filed in both Richmond and Columbia counties that question the constitutionality of private probation in misdemeanor cases, Craig ruled on September 16 that the courts cannot “lawfully extend the length of a misdemeanor sentence, supervised by private probation service, beyond its original term.”
In addition, Sentinel cannot collect probation fees after the original term of probation sentence has expired and it is unlawful to use electronic monitoring on people convicted of misdemeanors.
Although Craig did not rule that private probation is unconstitutional in misdemeanor cases, he did state on September 16 that the private probation company’s practices in Richmond County were denying people their rights of due process.
In response, Sentinel is arguing that without the ability to extend sentences, the company has little authority to carry out its court-ordered duties.
“The administration of justice in Augusta will be devastated if these injunctions are not stayed,” the September 23 motion filed by Sentinel’s attorneys stated, adding that the State Court of Richmond County and Sentinel face “irreparable harm.”
If Craig’s ruling is enforced, Sentinel argued that the State Court would be left with only two options: Either sentence existing and future people charged with misdemeanors to jail or release all those charged with misdemeanors without any supervision.
During the September 26 hearing, Craig said he did not buy Sentinel’s argument that his order was going to create “chaos” throughout the system.
“I’ve only been at this job for 34 years, but I’m having trouble understanding that,” Craig told the attorneys representing Sentinel and the State Court judges. “Because I don’t understand how all the other courts in this state can continue to operate and administer the issues of misdemeanor offenses except for Richmond County State Court.”
Attorneys for Sentinel and the State Court judges said they did not have any information that Richmond County operates any differently than other state courts.
But attorney Jack Long insisted Richmond County is operating differently because Sentinel is making “big money” off using electronic devices in misdemeanor cases.
“It is a revenue source for Sentinel and that’s why we are here,” Long said, adding that other courts around the state aren’t having such issues. “(Attorneys for Sentinel) all start talking about the sky is falling and the government won’t get any money and the judges will have to load the jails up. You are not doing that in Columbia County misdemeanor courts. No other courts are having to do that.”
Craig explained that it was his job to interpret the state law created in 2000 regarding misdemeanor probation services.
“Clearly and unambiguously the statute provides that there will be no tolling of misdemeanor sentences where the supervision is being provided by private probation services or by county probation services,” Craig said. “That’s what it says today. Whether that is what it will say at the conclusion of the legislative session that begins in January, I don’t know. But that is what the law says today and it says it without any equivocation, whatsoever.”
In writing his September 16 order, Craig said he carefully worded it so as not to impact any counties other than those within the Augusta Judicial Circuit.
“At this juncture, we are not about the business of other counties and we are certainly not to be guided by what the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association has transmitted to all of its 159 sheriffs over the last couple of days in regards to this very order,” Craig said. “And we probably shouldn’t be guided by what other Superior Courts in Cobb County and Bibb County have communicated to all of its members of the bench. And we won’t be.”
Craig said that the brief filed by attorneys Jim Wall and Jim Ellison on behalf of the Richmond County State Court judges, which claims Richmond County is only left with “either incarcerating violators or setting them free without any penalty,” isn’t painting the full picture.
“What is glaringly missing from that is the stipulation that there are 5,000 alleged violators of probation against whom warrants have been issued,” Craig said, adding that he was pretty sure every attorney in the courtroom understood the definition of a warrant. “A warrant is an order of a court. ‘Go get them.’ That’s the order. ‘Go arrest them and bring them to the court.’
“We haven’t seemed to be in much of a hurry to do that, have we? What if we were to go get 5,500 offenders against whom warrants have already been issued and bring them to the local county jail tonight? Where our jail capacity is approaching 1,100. What would we do then? Would the court have extra sessions in order to address that? Would we have even the remotest ability to transport those prisoners into court in order to give them their due process that the Constitution promises them?”
The truth of the matter is that the county has “no ability” to arrest these offenders, Craig said.
“But they are the ones against whom the order to incarcerate has already been issued,” Craig said. “And the reason is it is not being executed… is because they haven’t run a stop sign yet. That’s why they are not being arrested.”
Craig insisted that was not a complaint against the sheriff’s office, but a criticism of this legislation.
But, in fact, there are other ways to supervise probationers besides locking them up in jail or letting them walk away free without any punishment, Craig said.
“If you want to make them take time out, stand in the corner, tell them, ‘Go and improve your driving skills,’ ‘Go to school,’ ‘Get your GED,’ all of those things can be done,” Craig said. “And so there is an awful lot that can be done by the courts.”
Craig also said he understands that Sentinel is looking to make a profit and insisted that there was absolutely nothing wrong with that.
“But it seems to me, if we are going to give them a right to run these businesses at a profit, there ought to be a responsibility to go with it,” Craig said. “And what is the most important responsibility that we embrace as Americans when it comes to interfacing with our judicial system and our courts? Is it not due process? Is it not just a basic opportunity to defend oneself when one is facing the prospects of incarceration?”
But the 2000 law allowing private probation companies does not have any regulations dealing with due process, Craig said.
“There is absolutely no regulation that requires the private probation services to go and arrest the person in a timely fashion,” Craig said, adding that some warrants remain in the system for more than eight years while “witnesses disappear and the evidence evaporates.”
As a result, Craig stood by his original ruling and ordered that Sentinel remove all electronic monitoring devices from misdemeanor probationers in Richmond County and that people currently wearing electronic monitoring devices need to be notified of this change by 5 p.m. on October 2. Craig also ruled that Sentinel can no longer collect fees for electronic monitoring and no one can be jailed for not paying Sentinel fees after their probation terms expire.
Unfortunately, Craig said it wasn’t until someone stopped and questioned the misdemeanor probation process did the concerns regarding the state statute suddenly become so apparent.
“Everybody did just fine, I suppose, until somebody suggested that maybe we ought to be about the business of affording due process to Americans,” Craig said. “Maybe we ought to be about the business of seeing to it that their rights are protecting before we incarcerate them.”
Superior Court Judge Daniel Craig is standing firm.