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Private Probation Firms Charged Illegal Fees

ATLANTA (CN) - Private contractors charged with supervising misdemeanor probation terms cannot extend sentences to collect more fees, Georgia's top court ruled.

Georgia allows private probation companies to supervise offenders convicted of minor violations that do not warrant jail time. Probation is usually imposed when offenders cannot pay their traffic tickets and other misdemeanor fines.

Thirteen people who were sentenced to probation in two counties in Georgia sued their for-profit probation supervisor, Sentinel Offender Services, claiming it charged them unauthorized fees in violation of their due-process rights.

The plaintiffs, all of whom were convicted of at least one misdemeanor, alleged that Sentinel illegally changed the terms of their sentences, added conditions not included in their original court-ordered probation, and got some of them arrested based on their failure to comply with those added conditions.

Three of the probationers claimed that Sentinel collected or tried to collect excessive fees by seeking probation-revocation warrants against them after their original probation terms expired.

Others claimed that Sentinel unlawfully tolled their sentences to charge additional fees and imposed electronic monitoring and drug and alcohol testing not authorized under Georgia's private-probation statute.

After certifying the plaintiffs' lawsuits as class actions in each county, a state court ruled that private probation firms had no authority to recommend sentence extensions or to collect electronic-monitoring fees from misdemeanor probationers.

The ruling granted the plaintiffs recovery of any unauthorized supervision fees, but allowed Sentinel to keep fees from Columbia County where the company's contract was actually invalid because it had not been approved by the commission.

Georgia's Supreme Court expanded the recovery for probationers in its Nov. 24 resolution of the consolidated appeals, finding the disgorgement of fees appropriate in Columbia County, even for fees that could have been collected under a valid contract.

Without a valid contract, Sentinel had no authority to provide probation supervision services or charge for them, the 41-page opinion states.

The court agreed that private probation supervisors cannot extend sentences beyond the statutory one year for misdemeanor convictions, and that probationers are entitled to recover unlawfully collected supervision fees.

As to electronic monitoring, however, the court found this a proper condition of probation that may be applied to probationers under private supervision.

Electronic monitoring fees imposed by the sentencing court and collected during original sentence terms cannot be recovered, the ruling states.

Though the probationers had challenged the constitutionality of Georgia's private-probation statute, neither the trial court nor the Georgia Supreme Court found any violation of due process.

The allegations and evidence against Sentinel are troubling, but the law prohibits illegal or unreasonable probation fees; does not allow courts to improperly delegate their duties to probation officers; and does not violate probationers' rights, the court found.

"While the supervision of probation is a function historically performed by state probation officers, the mere act of privatizing these services does not violate due process," Chief Justice Hugh Thompson wrote for the court.

He cited the trial court's finding that "most of the injuries alleged by the plaintiffs in these cases occurred not because of Sentinel's compliance with the restrictions placed upon it by the private probation statutory framework, but because of Sentinel's failure or the failure of its employees to abide by the limited statutory authority granted."

Since all the plaintiffs were convicted of misdemeanors and placed on probation as an alternative to jail time, the statute cannot be said to condone imprisonment for debt, the ruling states.

The trial court must reconsider class certification on remand since its decision to certify the plaintiffs' classes was based on a ruling that was reversed in part.

State legislators from both parties welcomed the ruling, noting the need for stricter supervision of private probationers, who may charge low-income offenders unnecessary fees and keep them on probation for longer than ordered by courts.

"There are companies that see Georgia as a ripe business opportunity and I think we need to be a business-friendly state but not at the expense of our citizens," Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams told National Public Radio. "What (the court decision) signals to me is that the General Assembly has an affirmative obligation to ensure that any court system that uses these companies does so in a way that does not penalize the poor." (Parentheses in original).

Rep. Wendell Willard, the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said the state must find ways to reduce the number of low-level offenders on probation.

"I think we're just overusing and abusing, perhaps, the need for probation," Wendell told NPR.

Georgia has more people on probation for low-level offenses than any other state, at a rate that's quadruple the national average, according to an NPR report.

Earlier this year, Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a bill that would have expanded the power of probation companies and allowed them to continue charging monthly fees during extended probation terms.

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