“…a copy of the new contract was never provided to the public safety committee and was not even read by any of the committee members before they approved it to go before the Commission for formal approval in a consent agenda.”
On Tuesday, a new contract between private probation company Sentinel Offender Services and the Richmond County State Court was approved by the public safety committee and is headed to the Richmond County Commission for its consideration next week. Sentinel, a private, for-profit probation company under criticism from local to international media outlets, has been inundated by more than a dozen lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the statute that allows its existence. The cases allege that Sentinel overcharged probationers and illegally collected fees, in some instances using incarceration in our jails to coerce payment from probationers. Last year, Judge Daniel J. Craig issued a damning ruling against Sentinel, holding that practices in the Richmond County State Court violated basic constitutional rights and that Sentinel’s actions were unlawful in many instances.
© 2014 Jason Blalock for Human Rights Watch
“Thomas Barrett, destitute and living primarily off food stamps, was arrested in 2012 for stealing a can of beer valued at $2 and was sentenced to probation with Sentinel Offender Services, a for-profit firm. Despite selling his own blood plasma twice a week to raise money, Barrett fell more than $1,000 behind in his payments and was jailed for failure to pay.”
Sentinel appealed, and these cases were argued this month before the Georgia Supreme Court; a decision is expected in the coming months. Millions of dollars are at stake. Earlier this year, Sentinel spent significant sums of money lobbying for the passage H.B. 837, which was one of a handful of bills vetoed by Governor Nathan Deal at the close of this legislative session. That bill sought to expand the power of private probation entities like Sentinel, while cloaking their activities — making all records exempt from disclosure under open records and other sunshine laws. Sentinel is no stranger to lobbying. Previously, lobbying efforts by DMS Inc., a private probation entity now bought by and absorbed into Sentinel, included a $75,000 bribe to Bobby Whitworth, the former head of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. Whitworth was caught accepting the bribe to help pass legislation to benefit this industry, and subsequently convicted.
“For the poor, the situation is particularly bleak, despite constitutional prohibitions on debtors prisons.”
In April, the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts issued an independent audit report which analyzed contracts with private probation providers over a four year period in Georgia. Its findings were scathing to the private probation industry and common practices by courts, providers, and CMPAC, the State’s supposed regulatory body which is minimally funded. Chief Richmond County State Court Judge Richard Slaby was quoted as having incorporated findings from this “critical” state audit into the new contract with Sentinel Offender Services. “It was a very good audit,” said Slaby. “I incorporated their suggestions.” A cursory review of the audit report and the contract, however, show that the new contract contains very few substantive changes from those contracts previously used and now under scrutiny at the Supreme Court of Georgia, none of which protect the rights of the probationers.
Apparently, a copy of the new contract was never provided to the public safety committee and was not even read by any of the committee members before they approved it to go before the Commission for formal approval in a consent agenda. The very first recommendation in the state’s audit is “Courts that contract for probation services should solicit proposals from multiple providers, adopt practices that maximize evaluation transparency and objectivity, and document key decisions.” Here, no other providers besides Sentinel were offered an opportunity to bid on this contract with the Richmond County State Court, and the new contract makes secret “all reports, files, records, and papers” related to Sentinel’s business. More alarmingly, the contract is identical to contracts of the past in that it requires the State Court Judges to issue sentences which include monthly supervision fees to Sentinel paid by the probationers. What this means is that a contract with a private company now trumps a judge’s discretion to issue a sentence in comport with a person’s income, individual circumstances, and ability to pay. Shifting sentencing authority from the judicial branch of government to a private outfit — this is a perfect picture of the conversion of equal justice to cash register justice. For the poor, the situation is particularly bleak, despite constitutional prohibitions on debtors prisons. The new contract now allows individuals with low incomes to convert a fine to community service; however the determination of whether a person is indigent is made by Sentinel, according to the contract language. With a probation officer’s case load of nearly 1,000 participants and demand by his employer to produce greater profits, will anyone venture to take a guess of how often Sentinel will make this recommendation?
“The Richmond County Commission has seen these abysmal results year after year, and change is overdue.”
Insanity is repeating the same mistakes while expecting different results. We have seen the results from Sentinel: a wildly profitable company that fills its coffers from those Augustans who are least able to pay their fees, without offering the education or skills which are typically associated with state-run probation supervision services. Mostly unrepresented by counsel, these individuals of modest income are on probation simply because they need to spread payment of a traffic ticket out over several months, and often don’t realize they are being taken until it is too late. Sentinel’s profit-centered motives drive up the costs of operating both the State Court and fill our jails with nonviolent offenders, for the primary purpose of enriching their California-based owners. The Richmond County Commission has seen these abysmal results year after year, and change is overdue. We need not repeat our mistakes of the past, and continue to allow this particular company, plagued with civil rights litigation, to be a key player in our court system. Will our elected officials read the audit report and proposed State Court contract and act only after being reasonably informed on the topic, or will insanity again prevail in Augusta?