Justice

Georgia Company’s March Madness Tournament Drained Probationers’ Pockets

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“March Madness” generally refers to the most exciting time of the year for college basketball, but it used to have an entirely different meaning in Georgia. There, it described a money-grabbing game, created by a private probation company, that may have led to unconstitutional arrests and incarceration in the state.

According to an investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC), Sentinel Offender Services launched the March Madness Bonus game, which was played across the state, years ago. The scheme offered “Slam Dunk” cash rewards of $1,000, $800, and $400 to members of the offices that “met or exceeded their monthly revenue forecast.” Participating members also had the chance to win a free, two-night trip to Hilton Head Island, complete with gas and food money.

In order to qualify for the prizes, regional offices were incentivized to drain probationers pockets by any means necessary. As a result, people were arrested and jailed and forced to pay exorbitant fines and fees.

The scheme came to light when attorneys for Kathleen Hucks, an Augusta woman, argued that she was issued a warrant, arrested, and imprisoned long after her probation period was up. One of her lawyers says he’s working on 16 other cases across the state.

Sentinel’s chief business development officer told AJC that the game was not meant to hurt probationers. Instead, it was meant to encourage hard work.

“Nothing in the incentive plan encouraged harsh treatment or improper actions,” he said. “Our commitment has always been that good case management leads to good services and collections of victims’ restitution, service fees, and state ordered fines imposed by the Court.”

Hucks was rewarded $50,000 in damages, but other Georgians — and poor people nationwide — who are targeted by private probation companies haven’t been so lucky.

In 2014, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that Sentinel illegally extended jail sentences for people who couldn’t pay off tickets or court fines and fees — a process known as tolling. They also reaped cash benefits by sending people to jail for alleged probation violations, even though their probation periods were completed.

While the ruling confirmed that companies like Sentinel don’t have the legal authority to keep poor people locked away, it didn’t place tight restrictions on an industry that has wide-reaching authority in Georgia.

Every county in the state is legally authorized to hire private contractors to carry out probation duties, so private probation companies have expanded tremendously. Because the state considers traffic violations criminal offenses, it’s very easy for law enforcement to conspire with probation offices and round people up for the most minor offenses. The companies then issue monthly supervision fees, force probationers to pay for electronic monitoring, and charge people for drug tests. Sentinel also forced poor women to take costly urine tests that weren’t ordered by a judge.

For instance, a man who lived on food stamps, resided in subsidized housing, and sold his blood plasma for his income was jailed for failing to pay the $200 fine he owed for stealing a $2 beer. Under the supervision of a private probation firm, that amount grew to $1,000.