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Georgia Town Settles Suit Over Private Probation ‘Ransom’

A Georgia town that allegedly threatened and held poor people “ransom” for not paying court fines will make reforms under a legal settlement announced Monday.

The municipal court in Bainbridge, Georgia, had contracted with Red Hills Community Probation, a private company, to collect court fines and fees.

A lawsuit filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights claimed Red Hills employees routinely threatened indigent probationers with jail, detained them inside the courthouse to get them to make a payment, and urged them to pressure family and friends to come up with money to secure their freedom.

In one of the cases cited, Bainbridge fined Vera Cheeks $135 for failing to fully stop at a stop sign last year. When she couldn’t pay the full amount on her court date, she was assigned probation.

But when Cheeks walked into the probation room behind the courtroom, Red Hills employees allegedly told her she could not leave the building until she paid $50. According to the complaint, Cheeks' fiance pawned her engagement ring and his lawn equipment to set her free.

Read NBC Investigations' original report on the probation lawsuit

In the settlement, the City of Bainbridge agreed it will no longer detain people in the court or automatically jail people for failing to pay. It will also improve oversight and widen protections for poor defendants.

Cheeks and another plaintiff will get $15,000 payouts and three more will get $100 each in the settlement, which did not require the city to admit any wrongdoing.

“We applaud the City of Bainbridge and the Municipal Court for doing the right thing when confronted with evidence of widespread, illegal detentions of indigent people by private probation officers,” said Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights.

A city lawyer said Bainbridge officials were unaware of the problem until the lawsuit and it no longer works with Red Hills.

"We're glad that we could solve the problem in an expedited fashion," city counsel Raleigh Rollins said.

While the city settled, the lawsuit against Red Hills Community Probation and the city of Pehlam, Georgia, is still pending. The Bainbridge suit was one of more than a dozen cases against money-making probation firms across the southeast.