AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Kathleen Hucks was walking her dogs down the dirt road that leads out of Mim’s Rentals, a small trailer park in rural Augusta, Ga., when a police officer in a cruiser stopped her on Labor Day weekend.
The officer asked the slight 57-year-old for identification and ran her name through the system. Nothing came up for Richmond County, where she lives. Then the officer ran one more search.
“He says, ‘Ma'am I have to place you under arrest -- Columbia County’s got a hold on you for violation of probation,’” Hucks remembered.
When her husband, 64-year-old James Hucks, saw his wife getting arrested even though she was no longer on probation, he thought there had been an error. “I said, ‘Look here, don’t y’all realize this case is dead?’”
It was no mistake. A warrant for Hucks’ arrest had been issued in 2010, long after she completed a 24-month probation term arising from a 2006 conviction for drunken driving, possession of marijuana and driving with a suspended license. The reason: She hadn’t paid all the fees she owed to the for-profit company that supervised her probation.
Even though the company’s ability to collect the debt had expired when her probation did, she was arrested. Hucks spent 20 days in jail before a judge freed her.
Last week, Hucks filed suit against Sentinel Offender Services alleging that the Irvine, Calif.,-based company violated her civil rights. The outcome has implications beyond the case of one woman in Augusta because it claims that the Georgia law that allows for a for-profit company to act in a judicial capacity violates the due process clause of the state Constitution.
Hucks’ case is the latest of several lawsuits filed in Georgia and elsewhere challenging private probation companies, which operate in about 20 states.
Supporters of the industry say the system saves counties money by providing a service: collecting court fines without burdening taxpayers. But critics allege the private probation companies routinely violate the civil rights of the probationers under their watch and have, in essence, created a modern-day debtor’s prison.
“They say private industry can do things cheaper than government,” said John “Jack” Long, an attorney representing Hucks. “Maybe that’s true with some things. But the judicial system is not supposed to be cash-register justice."
How it works
In 2000, Georgia passed a law transferring state probation services to the counties and opening the door for local courts to contract with private companies for misdemeanor probation services. Bobby Whitworth, the former head of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, was imprisoned on public corruption charges for taking payments to help pass to the legislation. Nevertheless, the practice of privatizing probation services spread across the state.
Thirty-five companies are now registered to provide misdemeanor probation services to local Georgia courts. The counties contract for the services but pay nothing-- costs are covered by the monthly supervision fees paid by the probationers.
In most cases, the system works like this: A person is issued a summons for a relatively minor crime, such as speeding, driving with a suspended license or public intoxication. Upon conviction, those who can pay the fine at once usually are done with the Georgia justice system. But in Richmond County, where Census data show nearly a quarter of its population of about 200,000 live in poverty, and others, many cannot pay in full.
Those who can’t are put on private probation. For an additional monthly fee of between $25 and $45, they can pay the fine over the duration of their probation term.
Probationers may also find themselves responsible for additional costs, such as a one-time “start-up” fee of $15, a daily fee of $7 to $12 for electronic monitoring, a $25 photo fee required for DUI convictions, among others.
Adding to the cost,defendants in Georgia must pay $50 to the court to apply for a public defender, though the judge can waive the fee if a defendant is unable to pay.
Under Georgia law, an indigent person cannot be jailed for inability to pay a fine, unless the refusal is willful. But critics say neither courts nor probation companies make an effort to determine ability to pay. Instead, they say, companies routinely use the threat of jail against probationers for failing to pay not only court fines, but the private fees generated by what is known as “offender-funded supervision.”
The probation industry’s practices are increasingly landing it in court.
Acting on a class-action suit filed in 2010, a judge recently took control of the municipal court of Harpersville, Ala., after finding the probation company and the court operatedwhat he called “a judicially-sanctioned extortion racket.”
Long and fellow Augusta attorney John Bell also have a lawsuit pending against Sentinel pending in federal appeals court in the case of Hills McGee, a 53-year-old disabled veteran who lives off benefits of $271 a month. In October 2008, McGee, who lives in Richmond County, pleaded no contest to public intoxication and obstruction of a police officer. He was fined $270 in addition to the monthly supervision fees charged by Sentinel.
In January 2009, McGee’s court fines were converted to 41 hours of community service because he could not afford to pay. McGee says he completed his community service. But weeks later his probation was revoked for not paying an additional $186 in fees to the probation company. He spent two weeks in jail.
Founded in 1993, Sentinel Offender Services provides not only supervision, but also electronic monitoring, drug testing and other public safety functions across the country. The company claims to be the largest offender management service in the state of Georgia, collecting more than $30 million the more than 100 courts it served in 2009, according to company documents obtained through a public records request. Its operations in Georgia account for approximately 65 percent of its overall business, it said.
Sentinel did not respond to repeated requests for comment from NBC News. In 2009 Sentinel officials told the Augusta Chronicle that ‘mistakes happen’ but that the company does not threaten those who cannot afford to pay their fines. They also said that they regularly convert fees to community service.
Georgia’s County and Municipal Probation Advisory Council, which oversees both public and private probation in the state, did not respond to requests for comment.
Facing budget crunches, local courts have been under increased pressure to produce revenue. But since 2000, revenues from Richmond County State Court fines have dropped by more than a third, to about $4.6 million in 2011 from just under $7.2 million in 2000, according to State Court numbers.
While misdemeanor crime has remained steady, the revenue decline may partly be the result of more fines being converted to community service, according to the court clerk. But court officials could not provide data to support that assertion.
Sentinel’s contract with the county specifies that all payments made by probationers be split 50-50 between the company and the court. However, because the private probation companies are exempt from the Georgia public records law, it is impossible to know how much profit Sentinel has made while collecting those fines.
‘How about $500?’
On a recent Friday afternoon in Richmond County’s State Court, retired Superior Court Senior Judge Albert M. Pickettpresided over about two dozen misdemeanor cases. (Richmond County pays retired judges to sit in when state court judges are away or unavailable). Cases before him included minor shoplifting, traffic violations and drug possession and DUI. At about 3 p.m., nearly 30 people sat with their hands and feet shackled, waiting for their cases to be called. All but two were black.
Many were brought to the judge for a revocation hearing, held to determine whether or not they would have to go to jail for violating probation conditions. Others were new cases.
The revocation hearings turn the courtroom into a kind of market, where the judge and defendants haggle for freedom. One after the other, Judge Pickett asked each probationer how much money they could pay to avoid jail.
“You got six hundred and eighty dollars looking at you right here,” Judge Pickett told one defendant who, like most others in court that day, had been arrested for not reporting to a probation officer or paying fines. “Or you got a year, three months and 26 days” in jail, he said.
One after the other, defendants stood at the podium and figured how much money they could scrounge up. “I could pay a little something,” one man said. “Two, three hundred dollars.”
“Two or three hundred?” the judge asked. “How about $500?”
Judge Pickett asked a man who had been charged in October with possession of marijuana why he didn’t work out a payment plan with the probation company. “Why didn’t he say at that time, ‘I can’t afford this, I can’t pay these fines. Isn’t there some way I can work it out?’ They would have said, ‘You bet.’ But instead he just vanished.”
The judge gestured with his hand, mimicking a bird in flight. “Just gone.”
Those unfamiliar with Georgia law may find it surprising that defendants face probation or are jailed for traffic violations that would, in other states, simply require the payment of fines. It’s the only state in the country where traffic infractions are considered criminal charges, though legislators are now consideringchanging the law for low-level offenses.
“If you or I go to court and we have a speeding ticket, if we have any sense we’ll show up at court with a pocket full of cash,” said John Bell, who with Long represents Kathleen Hucks. “We’ll pay it and we’ll never have to be on probation.”
“They aren’t putting you on probation because they’re checking to make sure you’re working or staying home at night so you’re not gonna get in trouble,” he added. “They’re just trying to get money out of you.”
For her part, Kathleen Hucks and her family said that her initial sentence and probation term for driving under the influence was fair. “I believe I was treated right on that,” Hucks said. “I shouldn’t have been drinking and driving.”
They said they did their best to comply with the terms, when they could -- paying fines and reporting to her probation officer when they had money for gas. But Hucks had outstanding fineswhen her probation ended. According to the law, the court and company’s ability to pursue the fees should have run out too.
But years after her term ended, Sentinel continued to demand payments. Hucks has paid more than $2,000 in fees and fines since 2010.
Moreover, a recent public records request filed by Huck’s attorney indicates the Columbia County Board of Commissioners has not approved a contract with Sentinel since before April 2006, in violation of state laws governing private probation that require government contracts to be renewed annually. Yet the company continued to enforce probation sentences, like the one that for years followed Kathleen Hucks.
“I feel like sometimes they make their own rules instead of really abiding by the law itself,” her husband, James, said. “And they figure, ‘These people are nobody. We can treat them the way we want to. What can they do? They don’t have any money.’”
Hannah Rappleye and Lisa Riordan-Seville are frequent NBC News contributors. The reporting for this story was supported through a grant from the nonprofit Open Society Institute, which says its mission is to "build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens."
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