Minutes after a court sentenced Adel Edwards to pay a $500 fine for burning leaves in his yard without a permit, the private probation company tasked with supervising his monthly payments told him he actually owed more than $1,000 and demanded $250 up front. Because Edwards couldn’t pay the full amount on the spot, the company had him thrown in jail for several days until a friend came up with the money, according to a new federal lawsuit. The suit, filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights, charges that Red Hills Community Probation conspired with local police in two small Georgia towns to jail poor people without any court approval or legal authority, effectively holding them for ransom.
The plaintiffs, who live in Bainbridge and Pelham, GA, were ordered by the court to pay exorbitant fees for misdemeanor offenses. Edwards pleaded guilty to burning leaves, while others were told they needed to pay hundreds of dollars for speeding, failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, and driving with a suspended registration.
At this point, these stories are reminiscent of reports coming out of Ferguson and the surrounding area, where municipalities exploit a murky labyrinth of court fees and traffic tickets to make money off poor defendants. But private probation companies like Red Hills, which are used by more than 1,000 court systems in ten states, further feed on these moneymaking schemes by tacking on their own share of fees. In Pelham and Bainbridge, the suit alleges, the probation firm went even further, committing false imprisonment and fraud, among other charges.
Like Edwards, the other plaintiffs met with Red Hills probation officers, who told each of them they could not leave the courthouse until they paid a certain amount of money that same day. Even though they weren’t legally required to pay the company the same day as their sentencing, the lawsuit states that police officers were stationed at the doors to keep them from leaving. One woman says she was detained in the courthouse while her fiance pawned her engagement ring to come up with the funds the company demanded.
“Red Hills is able to carry out the policies and practices challenged in this case only with the approval and assistance of city police officers, whose active participation in the seizures adds credibility to threats of Red Hills personnel,” the lawsuit states.
Additionally, the plaintiffs claim that even after their sentences had expired and they were no longer legally required to report to the probation company, Red Hills officers lied to them, threatening them with jail time if they didn’t keep paying the company money and meeting with their probation officers. “When probationers are finished with their probationary periods but still have not paid all fines and fees, Red Hills personnel have falsely instructed former probationers that they could be taken back to court and jailed for failing to report to Red Hills officers and failing to make payments to Red Hills,” the lawsuit asserts.
Private probation companies have particularly flourished in Georgia because it is the only state where traffic violations are considered criminal offenses, and state law explicitly authorizes every county to contract with private corporations. While lavishing money on state lawmakers, these companies have been repeatedly caught illegally extending sentences and operating illegal debtors prisons.
But after multiple lawsuits and court rulings affirming that what the companies are doing is illegal, Georgia’s legislature recently started backing away from the private probation industry. Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to sign a sweeping overhaul of the probation system, which includes forcing companies to be more transparent, limit how much companies can charge probationers, and create a new state agency to ensure judges and contractors are abiding by the law.