It was a telephone call that Donna Mantooth never expected.
“I remember answering the phone and it was my son’s girlfriend on the other end and she sounded really upset,” Mantooth said. “I heard her say, ‘Nathan is being arrested.’ And I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it.”
At that moment, her 19-year-old son was being placed in the backseat of a Columbia County sheriff’s cruiser while his girlfriend and infant daughter watched in disbelief.
“I immediately jumped up and said, ‘What in the world is he being arrested for?’” Donna Mantooth said. “And she told me, ‘The deputy says they have a warrant for his arrest.’”
Nathan Mantooth had been stopped by a sheriff’s deputy in Harlem on March 18 because he was driving without a seatbelt. But after receiving the ticket, the deputy’s computer showed there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest.
The deputy told Nathan Mantooth that he would have to be transported to the Richmond County jail where the warrant was issued.
“The warrant said to take him with or without cause,” Donna Mantooth recalled. “I immediately said to his girlfriend, ‘Let me talk to that police officer, right now! They are making a mistake. This isn’t right.’
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it. That was just the momma in me coming out.”
The warrant was issued by the private probation company, Sentinel Offender Services, which is under contract with the State Court of Richmond County.
As a result of Sentinel’s actions, Nathan Mantooth became part of more than a dozen civil cases filed in both Richmond and Columbia counties alleging that the private probation company has violated people’s constitutional rights.
According to Nathan Mantooth’s lawsuit, Sentinel employee Kayla White swore under oath that the 19-year-old had violated his probation relating to a traffic offense of “improper lane change” that had occurred last year.
On October 5, 2012, Nathan Mantooth was returning home after attending the Border Bash in downtown Augusta when he got pulled over because a Richmond County Sheriff’s deputy said he witnessed him “weaving in and out of traffic, causing other vehicles to slam on their brakes to avoid hitting him.”
Nathan Mantooth pleaded guilty on January 23 of this year in State Court to improper lane change. He was ordered to pay $420 in fines and attend defensive driving school.
“My son at that point had never been arrested, had never been in trouble with the law or anything,” Donna Mantooth said. “We took it very seriously. He went to court on January 23, we paid the fines that day and by January 30 he had completed his defensive driving course.”
The very next day, Nathan Mantooth drove to Sentinel’s offices off Walton Way to deliver the paperwork indicating that he had completed the defensive driving course.
“And they were like, ‘I’m sorry. We don’t have you in the system. You have to come back,’” Donna Mantooth said. “So, he did. He came back again on February 15. When he got down there again, the woman told him, ‘I’m sorry you are not in the system.’”
This was the second day that Nathan Mantooth had taken time off of work in hopes of providing Sentinel with the defensive driving documents.
“At that point, Nathan said, ‘Can you guys just keep the paperwork? Get a record of it? Make a copy of it? Something,’” Donna Mantooth said. “Because he is the father of a 2-year-old daughter and he is trying to take care of the momma and the baby and he is working full-time. But they said, ‘No. We don’t have a way of doing that.’”
The Sentinel employee allegedly told Nathan Mantooth that the probation company would call him in a few weeks and let him know when he was in the system and the date in which he was supposed to report to his probation officer.
Even though Sentinel had documents listing his home address and phone number, Nathan Mantooth insists he was never contacted or notified that he was in violation of his probation.
As a result, on March 18, after being pulled over for not wearing his seatbelt, he wound up spending the day in jail.
“The thing that gets me about it is Nathan did everything he was supposed to do and he still went to jail,” Donna Mantooth said, adding that her son’s mugshot was also featured in that week’s The Jail Report. “I work at the Department of Veterans Affairs and all of my buddies down there were asking, ‘Did I see your kid in the paper?’
“Sentinel ruined his good name and he didn’t do anything but get a traffic ticket. Not only that, Sentinel put my son in jail and that is somewhere that my husband and I didn’t ever want our boys to end up.”
After learning that her son had been arrested, Donna Mantooth said she rushed down to Sentinel’s offices and paid the $103 in fees that the probation company claimed her son owed.
That immediate response, she believes, is exactly what private probation companies like Sentinel are counting on.
“You can’t tell me it’s not about making money with these private probation companies,” Donna Mantooth said. “They know we are going to run down there and pay them whatever they want. Just like I told the lady at Sentinel that day. I said, ‘I will pay you whatever it takes. I have got to get my son out of there.’
“She could have named her price and I would have given it to her.”
More than three years ago, Augusta attorneys Jack Long and John Bell began their fight to improve probation practices in this area after hearing about a case involving a man named Hills McGee.
In 2010, an attorney from the public defender’s office approached Long about a case she handled involving a defendant who she thought had been unlawfully incarcerated.
She told Long about McGee, a disabled veteran who was originally charged with public drunkenness and obstruction of a law enforcement officer back in October 2008.
After spending the night in jail following his arrest, McGee appeared in state court to face the charges. Although McGee was indigent, he signed a form that waived his rights to an attorney and entered a guilty plea.
McGee was sentenced to 12 months on each count to run consecutively and was ordered to pay a fine of $270 and a monthly probation supervision fee of $30 per month plus a $9 monthly fee for the state’s Crime Victims Compensation Program.
Although McGee completed 41 hours of community service in lieu of the $270 fine, because he was indigent, his probation was revoked because he couldn’t pay the $186 in fees that he owed Sentinel.
As a result, McGee was thrown into jail.
“When I found out about this case, I went out to the Phinizy Road Jail and saw Mr. McGee,” Long told the Metro Spirit. “It took me about 15 seconds to understand what was going on. This man is schizophrenic and bipolar. He is not a danger to anyone. And this case is just a very good example of why you don’t need a private company making any decisions for somebody to be in jail.”
McGee was scheduled to served two months behind bars, but Superior Court Judge Michael Annis agreed with Long that McGee’s jail sentence was unlawful.
“This court cannot find any evidence sufficient to show that (McGee), either at sentencing or at the probation revocation hearing, ever knowingly and intelligently waived his right to counsel,” Annis wrote in his 2010 order.
Annis also wrote that it is “impossible to expect” an individual such as McGee would have the ability to pay the $186 to Sentinel. McGee’s only income was a monthly disability check totaling about $240, Long said.
So began Long’s quest to prove that private probation is unconstitutional in Georgia due to the fact that companies such as Sentinel are using warrants and the jail system as a means of collecting fees.
According to Long, that problem is compounded when private probation companies like Sentinel pay their employees with a bonus system that gives them an economic incentive to issue more warrants in order to ensure the fees are collected.
“You don’t pay police officers a percentage of each ticket they write,” Long said, sitting in his office on Greene Street. “Police officers are there to protect and serve. They give out tickets if we are speeding or violating a traffic law. And the object of the ticket is to make us slow down, so we don’t kill people.”
The same is true for judges handing down verdicts, Long said.
“Judges aren’t there to raise revenue,” he said. “They are there to dispense some sort of justice and hopefully make people abide by the rules of society. Nobody in the judicial system, whether we are talking about a FBI agent or a sheriff’s deputy, gets a profit based upon the number of arrests that they make. Profit has nothing to do with what they are doing.
“That used to be the case for probation back when Richmond County had their own probation office. It worked really well, but that all changed in 2000.”
Georgia passed a law in 2000 transferring state probation services to the counties and opening the door for local courts to contract with private companies for misdemeanor probation services.
Not long after the new law was passed, Bobby Whitworth, the former head of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, was imprisoned on public corruption charges for taking payments to help get the legislation passed.
Despite the fact that Whitworth went to prison on charges he took a $75,000 bribe from another private probation company called Detention Management Services (which was later acquired by Sentinel), the practice of privatizing probation services quickly spread across the state of Georgia.
The difference between state probation officers and private probation employees like those working for Sentinel is night and day, Long said.
“State probation officers who work for the Georgia Department of Corrections, these people don’t get a bonus based on selling services,” Long said. “First of all, these are professionals. We call these private people working for Sentinel ‘probation officers.’ Well, when we do that we do a real disservice to the real professionals who work for the state Department of Corrections.”
State probation officers work extremely hard to reform those people on probation and even suggest to judges that an individual’s probation sentence be shortened if they are “turning over a new leaf,” Long said.
“Let’s say, Mr. Jones is on probation,” Long said. “Well, their job is to get Mr. Jones a job, make sure he doesn’t violate any other laws and try to turn him into a productive member of society.
“State probation officers are not trying to extend people’s probation for fees. They are trying to do the proper thing. These people who are working for Sentinel are not really trained probation officers. They are bill collectors.”
Founded in 1992, Sentinel Offender Services has grown into a powerful player in criminal justice systems around the country. Based in Irvine, California, the company has assets of nearly $32 million, and brought in nearly $5.6 million in revenues in 2012, according to disclosures filed in a separate, federal lawsuit. In Georgia, the bulk of their business comes from collecting fines and fees for private probation and monitoring. Elsewhere, their contracts with municipalities to provide electronic monitoring bring in millions.
After reviewing the 13 lawsuits filed in both Richmond and Columbia counties, Superior Court Judge Daniel Craig ruled last week that Sentinel must repay probation and electronic monitoring fees illegally collected from the plaintiffs. Craig also ruled that certain plaintiffs meet the definition of a class, possibly setting the stage for future class-action suits against the company.
While refraining from ruling that private probation in Georgia is unconstitutional, Craig’s ruling against Sentinel marks a significant turn in a long-running legal battle against the private probation company.
According to the written ruling issued September 16, Craig stated 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.
The judge also ruled that it is unlawful to use electronic monitoring on people convicted of misdemeanors and, therefore, Sentinel will also have to refund those fees it charged defendants.
In addition, the judge stated the private probation company’s practices in Richmond County were denying people their rights of due process.
“Without exception, the effect of the practice is long-delayed arrest and incarceration of the probationer. In some cases, the arrests are made in other counties or states and the probationer must await transport to Richmond County,” Craig wrote in his September 16 ruling. “The practice offends basic notions of due process by depriving the probationer the opportunity to defend the alleged violations of probation in a timely manner when evidence may be more readily available, and subjecting the probationer to detention many years after the original sentence has expired.”
Literally, thousands and thousands of people on probation, or those who were formerly on probation, will benefit from Craig’s ruling.
While Long was pleased with Craig’s decision, he wishes the judge went further and ruled private probation was unconstitutional in Georgia.
“It is a great ruling, but it could have been greater,” Long said. “The fact that you cannot extend probation and you cannot have electronic monitoring, that’s great. Because electronic monitors are Sentinel’s big profit center.”
Sentinel can still make money off the $35 a month that it charges each individual for probation services, but taking away the use of electronic monitoring in misdemeanor cases is a huge financial blow to the private company, Long said.
“The electronic monitoring is where you really line your pockets with money,” Long said. “And, of course, Judge Craig did say private probation was unconstitutional as applied here by issuing these warrants and letting them sit out there for eight years and then have people arrested. He was basically saying you are violating the due process clause and the way we are applying this statute. So, we are applying this statute in an unconstitutional manner.
“But I wish he would have gone further and said you can’t have (private probation) at all. However, I don’t think that battle is over with here.”
The lawsuits in Augusta threaten to upend the business practices of Sentinel, which is one of Georgia’s leading private probation providers, serving about 78 courts in the state. The lawsuits are also the latest indication of growing problems at a company that has been a major player in the expanding business of for-profit criminal justice supervision around the country.
However, while the lawsuits in Richmond and Columbia counties have attracted significant attention, it is not the only place where Sentinel’s practices have been challenged in court.
Richard Anderson brought a federal lawsuit against the company after his arrest in Glynn County, Georgia, in 2011. Anderson alleged he was falsely imprisoned after his arrest for violating his probation, nearly a year after his probation term had run up and after the warrant requested by Sentinel had expired.
As with the cases in Richmond County, one of the main issues is whether Sentinel can request, and the courts can have the authority, to “toll,” or extend, probation sentences beyond their original term.
Before the federal court, Sentinel argued its tolling of Anderson’s term was legal under Georgia law.
Yet in Richmond County, Judge Craig did not agree, ruling that neither private probation companies nor the court have authority to extend those sentences under Georgia statute.
While the ruling in Richmond was in a different jurisdiction and has no legal impact on the federal case, Craig’s strongly worded order could have ripple effects.
As a result, it appears Sentinel is not taking Craig’s ruling lying down.
Just this week, attorneys for Sentinel filed a motion to suspend Craig’s order pending an appeal. Sentinel is arguing that without the ability to extend sentences, the company would have little authority to carry out its court-ordered duties. Therefore, probationers like Anderson could simply fail to comply with their terms of probation, and fail to pay their court ordered fines, without consequence.
“The administration of justice in Augusta will be devastated if these injunctions are not stayed,” the September 23 motion filed by Sentinel’s attorneys states. “Unless supersedeas is immediately granted in these cases pending appeal, the citizens of Augusta, the State Court of Richmond County and Sentinel face irreparable harm. Effectively left without a probation system, the State Court of Richmond County will be unable to administer justice to misdemeanant criminals.”
If Craig’s ruling is enforced, the motion argues that the State Court will 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.
Sentinel’s motion also states that the State Court, victims of crime and other critical government entities will “lose significant revenue from court-ordered fines and restitution” if Craig’s order is not suspended pending an appeal.
For example, in 2012, the motion states that Sentinel collected and remitted more than $1.1 million in fines, almost $776,500 in court costs, $77,846 in restitution payment and $365,452 in payments to the Georgia Crime Emergency Fund, along with various payment to other government entities.
“If the injunctions are not stayed pending Sentinel’s appeal, these organizations will lose a significant portion of these funds with no ability to recover them,” the motion states.
Sentinel’s attorneys also appear to be extremely confident that Craig’s ruling will be overturned in an appeal.
“Sentinel is likely to succeed on the merits of its appeal because Georgia courts are authorized to order electronic monitoring and toll misdemeanor sentences,” the motion states.
While Sentinel may seem confident in their motion that Craig’s ruling won’t stand, lobbying efforts indicate private probation companies, including Sentinel, may have seen this this ruling coming.
Last year, three state representatives introduced legislation that would explicitly allow probation companies to “toll” sentences. The bill, HB 582, is currently pending before the Judiciary Non-Civil Committee in the state House of Representatives.
Mark Contestibile, Sentinel’s chief business development officer, testified during his deposition that the company had lobbied for the bill last year to seek “consistency throughout court operations across the state.”
“Each court tolls according to its own interpretation and logic,” he testified. “Some may use a date of the last report date. Some may use the date of the signature from the judge. Those inconsistencies is what we were looking to clean up.”
While Sentinel continues to fight the litigation in Richmond and Columbia counties, its troubles have spread across the country.
Sentinel is currently embroiled in a suit with its insurance company, Allied World. The federal suit filed in June asserts that the company is not responsible for covering Sentinel’s legal fees. Allied World is also seeking reimbursement for more than $200,000, plus interest, in defense costs related to the Augusta lawsuits.
Recent developments in Orange County, California, suggest more troubling issues. In late August, the Orange County Probation Department terminated its contract with Sentinel after a series of internal audits showed it had failed to monitor probationers.
According to officials at the Orange County Probation Department, a review of 143 cases revealed more than 15 examples of “gross negligence” by the company.
Memos obtained by the <
The Probation Department began auditing Sentinel’s operations less than two months before the company’s contract was set to expire. Between May 22 and June 4, according to the memos, the audit found that 14 probationers had gone untracked, one for up to 27 days.
Sentinel, responsible for tracking probationers sentenced to electronic monitoring, had also failed to report individuals who had violated the terms of their sentence. Among a litany of problems, the investigation showed that one individual banned from drinking alcohol failed alcohol tests 81 times. But Sentinel did not notify the Probation Department.
Sentinel’s CEO, Robert Contestabile, responded in a letter dated June 27 that the company would perform an “extensive audit” of its case files, re-train its staff and review and discipline its staff, among other measures. “Employees associated with some of these cases have been disciplined, including up to termination,” Robert Contestabile wrote.
Sentinel was fined $43,200.
Chief Probation Officer for Orange County Steven J. Sentman wrote in the memo that the “Department has no confidence or assurance in Sentinel’s ability to provide accurate, reliable, and consistent services to this alternative confinement population.”
The contract was a major loss for Sentinel.
But Sentinel’s battle with Allied World also opened up a window into the amount of profits the company experiences each year, Long said.
“So far, the lawyers defending these cases have charged over $500,000. And we have still not had the first trial. Why? Because the profits are so huge,” Long said, adding that those numbers were revealed in the complaint filed by Allied World Assurance against Sentinel. “In June of 2012, they grossed over $5.5 million and netted over $1.8 million, for a net profit of 32 percent. And it seems that over half of their operations are in Georgia. They will do anything to keep this stream of income up.”
Long said he simply wants the Augusta Commission, which recently renewed the county’s contract with Sentinel, and judges in the State Court of Richmond County to demand a review of the financial records of this private probation company.
“I don’t know why our leaders don’t require a disclosure of what judges are imposing electronic monitoring, the number of folks locked up at our expense while they get family members to pay the start up fees, and the amount of money made from this racket,” Long said.
But Long insists that this fight is far from over.
“The purpose of all of this is to stop what I think is an abusive system,” Long said, adding that, not only does he want to see Sentinel gone from Richmond and Columbia counties, but he hopes that the company will leave the entire state of Georgia. “Judge Craig’s order stops some of the abuse, but this will continue as long as we see abuses in the system. I promise.
“And I don’t know where this will ultimately end, but this is a damn good start.”