You're paroled! That'll be $270 a month, please

Lawsuit seeks payback for overcharged parolees

Coleman Jackson was paroled from prison in 2002 after serving three years of a five-year stretch for aggravated assault. He was placed on probation and did odd jobs to get back on his feet. One of his customers was McNeill Stokes, a local attorney. One day, Stokes says, Jackson asked to borrow some money. Jackson pointed to an ankle bracelet, which made sure he observed the terms of his probation. The fee for the ankle monitor was $9 a day.

"That's $270 a month!" says Stokes. "I couldn't believe it. I about fell out of my chair."

A month ago, after looking into Jackson's case, Stokes filed a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court against the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, as well as private probation companies, former board member Bobby Whitworth and former board Chairman Walter Ray. Stokes and fellow attorney Gerry Weber are representing Jackson and are seeking class-action status in a case they say affects up to 5,000 parolees in Georgia. The lawsuit claims that the "grossly excessive" monitoring fees came about as the result of an "illegal conspiracy" involving Whitworth and Ray, both of whom resigned from the board in 2002 amid allegations they used their positions to help a private probation company, Detention Management Services, which was co-owned by Lanson Newsome, a friend and former colleague of Whitworth's. (Newsome is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit.)

A phone call to Whitworth's attorney was not returned. Regarding the lawsuit, paroles board spokeswoman Heather Hedrick deferred comment to the state attorney general's office, which did not respond to CL by press time.

The allegations cited in the lawsuit stretch to 1998, when the state became one of the first in the country to make inmates pay for electronic monitoring costs. According to the complaint, parole board members improperly awarded the monitoring contract to Detention Management Services without competitive bidding. The result? Daily fees that had been $3 a day, and paid for by the state, now climbed to $9 a day, to be paid by the parolee. In at least one case, the daily fee was $22. How, the plaintiff's attorneys ask, could parolees be expected to make a fresh start when they were paying close to $300 a month for electronic monitoring?

"There's an excessive fines provision in the state constitution," Weber says. "But all of the various legal claims lead to one simple fact — the inmates were charged a per-day fee that was far, far in excess of the costs to provide those services. It was to line folks' pockets."

Stokes says that if parolees were unable to pay the fees, they were often put back in jail. "It's imprisonment for debt for these people, on the ground they're violating their parole," he says. "I think it's absolutely unconscionable. It's a private fine, is what it is."

In 2000, Whitworth was paid $75,000 by Detention Management Services for "consulting" work. The paycheck came a day before the General Assembly passed a bill that transferred electronic monitoring responsibilities from the state to individual counties. Detention Management Services stood to make big money from the legislation. But Whitworth's work for the company raised allegations of a conflict of interest, and last December, a Fulton County jury convicted him of public corruption, agreeing with prosecutors that he'd used his position to influence legislation that would benefit Detention Management Services. Whitworth was given a six-month sentence but has appealed the conviction; so far, he hasn't served any jail time.

By the time of Whitworth's conviction, the state had changed its policy regarding private probation companies. Today, house arrest monitoring services are provided by ADT Security Services Inc., which won the contract by being the low bidder. Parolees still pay a daily fee, but it's $2.70 a day, according to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Stokes and Weber want the state — as well as Detention Management Services and the company that ended up purchasing it, Sentinel Offender Services — to reimburse all 5,000 affected parolees. Weber estimates that parolees were overcharged a total of $13 million.