In January, Nathan Ryan Mantooth was sentenced to 12 months of probation for an improper lane change by a county judge in Georgia. He was ordered to pay a $420 fine, attend a driver improvement course, and pay a monthly probation supervision fee of $35 to Sentinel Offender Services, a private probation firm. He paid the fee and completed the course within a week of his sentencing. Twice, he went to Sentinel to submit his certificate of completion but was told his name was not yet in the computer. But when he was pulled over two months later for failure to wear a seatbelt, police found an outstanding warrant filed by Sentinel for a probation violation, and took him into custody.
Last week, a Georgia county judge ruled that Sentinel Offender Service had illegally extended the sentence of Mantooth and potentially thousands of others who were required to pay the firm monthly probation fees, and was illegally ordering electronic monitoring for misdemeanor offenders — prohibited by state law — while charging probationers for their own monitoring.
Other named plaintiffs in the pair of cases were hauled off to jail and/or subjected to electronic monitoring for alleged probation violations six years after their probation had ended for minor offenses like possession of marijuana and no proof of insurance.
Sentinel Offender Services has become notorious for using every means available to extract funds from low-level offenders, motivated by profit rather than the public interest in supervising and rehabilitating these low-level offenders. Those in Columbia or Richmond counties who cannot pay fines associated with minor offenses like speeding or public intoxication are placed on private probation, which carries monthly fees of $34 to $44. They are also charged additional “start-up” fees, photo fees, and electronic monitoring fees. When they cannot afford to keep up with these fees, they end up in jail, unfamiliar with a state law that prohibits incarceration for inability to pay.
In this class action lawsuit, Sentinel’s lawyer admitted to Judge Daniel Craig that, when the firm finds individuals have violated their probation, it makes no attempt to find them immediately and bring them before a judge. Instead, employees just issue probation warrants that can sit for years until an individual’s next encounter with the police reveals an open warrant that lands them in jail. At that point, they cannot dispute their incarceration until they can be brought before a judge during a regular session of court to show that their probation has ended, or that they have already completed their obligations.
This is not the first time a judge has rebuked the firm. But this time, Judge Daniel J. Craig certified a class action against Sentinel. He also ordered Sentinel to halt the practice immediately and pay back illegal fees.
Several Georgia laws facilitate this system. One is a law passed in part through bribes and corruption that authorizes every county to hire its own private probationer. (The lawsuit also unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of the law). Another is that Georgia is also the only state in which traffic violations are criminal infractions.
Sentinel’s record exemplifies the dangers of privatizing criminal justice services in which profit conflicts with the primary goal of the program. Private prisons, for example, have come under the spotlight as they lobby for incarceration, cut corners on prison security, and lock states into inmate quotas.
Private probation is less common, thus far. But in those states that have authorized it, its dangers are already emerging. In Alabama, a judge halted one town’s private probation operation last year, finding it amounted to a “debtors’ prison” — an age-old, now-unconstitutional way of jailing people when they cannot afford to pay. And Georgia’s private probationers law passed after a private probation company paid the head of the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles $75,000 to lobby for the law. Richmond County recently extended its contract with Sentinel, according to NBC.