Fees or jail
Private probation companies in Georgia come under scrutiny
On a mild January day in southwest Georgia, Atlanta resident James Davis got a ticket for speeding through the city of Pelham.
The city has yet to set Davis a court date or a fine but it might be something the 54-year-old on a fixed income of about $710 per month won't be able to pay, according to his attorney, Sarah Geraghty. She's afraid he's going to end up in the Pelham jail, in hock to a private probation company.
"Courts cannot incarcerate people just because they're poor," says Geraghty, senior attorney at the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. "Unfortunately, we see that happening all over the state."
In the vast majority of Georgia's misdemeanor courts — some 80 percent of them — judges farm out misdemeanor probation to private companies. And with fairly little regulation, these companies can charge their more than 250,000 probationers fees for everything from "anger management classes" to ankle monitors.
It's an industry worth millions to companies, and it's attractive to courts and local governments because it takes an expense and complication out of the budget. But opponents are fighting the system with lawsuits.
SCHR, representing Davis and four other plaintiffs in a new federal case, is suing Red Hills Community Probation and the cities and police forces of Pelham and Bainbridge, and their staffs. The plaintiffs claim the companies and cities have a long-standing policy of coercing cash out of indigent defendants — even not letting them out of the courthouse until they cough up cash, sometimes as much as hundreds of dollars. Red Hills and the other defendants deny that they coerced cash out of anyone in the case, according to documents filed in federal court.
"What happens when somebody can pay a fine, they pay," says Augusta attorney Jack Long, who challenged the constitutionality of private probation all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court. "If you don't have the ability courts and private probation companies say, 'Now, we will put you on probation ... you have the privilege of paying over time.' But you also have the privilege of paying their fees over time, which sometimes can amount to as much as the fine. And then if you don't pay their fees they can put you in jail."
The state Supreme Court ruled last year that private probation is constitutional, though such companies cannot single-handedly extend probation periods. Long has filed a new pair of lawsuits representing current and former probationers in cases against Judicial Alternatives of Georgia and Middle Georgia Probation. Both companies handle probation for several courts, most of which are located in central Georgia.
Long argues the companies' contracts with the courts are not valid, because the contracts have not been routinely reviewed and approved by each jurisdiction's county commission or city council. He estimates that from April 2011 through today, there could be as many as 10,000 to 12,000 people who were put on probation without a valid contract.
Long says it's hard to say how much all the companies operating in Georgia might earn. Human Rights Watch estimates $40 million. In metro Atlanta, the biggest players are Judicial Correction Services and Sentinel Offender Services, which holds the Atlanta Municipal Court contract. JCS runs probation for Fulton Superior, State and Magistrate courts.
Some people who can't afford to pay the private probation fees end up in jail. In a lawsuit filed this year against JCS and its then-clients DeKalb County and the Recorders Court chief judge, Kevin Thompson alleged, among other claims, that DeKalb locked him up for five days in 2014 on traffic violations because he could not pay $838 in fines and fees within 30 days of sentencing, despite his looking for a job, working odd jobs, and borrowing from his relatives. The case was recently settled out of court. Geraghty from SCHR worked on the case, as did ACLU attorneys.
JCS gets high marks in Fulton. The County Commission voted a year's contract renewal in January. State Court Administrator Cicely Barber reviewed the contract ahead of the commission vote and submitted paperwork to the commissioners, giving the firm "good" grades. The Commission unanimously approved the JCS contract, worth roughly $1.46 million, without debate.
But Long says probation should be a public function because courts are supposed to be about justice, not profit. People would not tolerate judges being paid a percentage of the fines they levied instead of a flat salary, Long says. There'd be too much temptation to fine everyone the maximum. The same thinking applies to probation, he says.
"When you put a probation officer in a court they're designed to promote some system of justice," Long says. "You throw the economic side in — it doesn't work."