Georgia Supreme Court Curbs Power of Private Probation Industry That Preys on Poor

Wednesday, December 03, 2014
Bob Contestabile, president of Sentinel Offender Services

Private companies that provide probation services were dealt a blow in Georgia last week when the state Supreme Court rolled back some of the profit-driven habits of the controversial industry.


One of the more criticized aspects of private probation operators has been their adding additional fines and punishment onto individuals, a practice called “tolling.” When an individual is unable to pay his or her fine, the company compounds that debt with exorbitant surcharges—up to 40% in some states—while extending the original sentence,  sometimes issuing arrest warrants and threats of imprisonment for failing to pay on time.


The Georgia trial court findings showed that “potentially thousands of Georgians had their sentences illegally extended, and several of the named plaintiffs had been improperly 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,” according to Nicole Flatow at ThinkProgress.


The practice of tolling has made life difficult for low-income Americans trying to move past their criminal actions, and it has come in for heavy criticism in judicial circles and in the press. Tolling has been labeled “one of the most egregious … unconstitutional things we’ve ever seen in the criminal justice system,” according to the Augusta Chronicle. Alabama Judge Hub Harrington described the practice as a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”


In Georgia, critics of the industry filed suit in state court, hoping the judicial system would nullify the contracting out of probation services to private businesses like Sentinel Offender Services, which was a defendant in the case. Sentinel is a $30-million enterprise that operates more than 40 branches across the nation.


The Supreme Court didn’t go as far as industry critics had hoped, but the justices upheld portions of a lower court ruling that said Sentinel lacked the legal power to extend probation sentences in cases where people can’t pay additional fines.


The decision (pdf) also had the effect of reviving “the issue of private probation firms, and prompted lawmakers from both parties to explore reforming the system in the ruling’s wake,” according to ThinkProgress.


The past 40 years has seen marked growth in this industry, with private probation firms now operating in 40% of U.S. states, primarily in the South. Georgia alone has more than 30 businesses providing these services, which oversee 80% of the state’s misdemeanor offenders and collectively rake in $40 million in fees from low-income citizens.


It’s been reported that these companies are primarily controlled by former law enforcement officials.

- Danny Biederman, Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Georgia’s Top Court Reins in Private Probation Firms for Illegally Extending Sentences (by Nicole Flatow, ThinkProgress)

A Bombshell Ruling (Augusta Chronicle)

Georgia's Highest Court Limits Power of Private Probation Industry (by Lisa George, WABE)

Sentinel Offender Services, LLC v. Glover (Supreme Court of Georgia) (pdf)

Outsourcing Probation Puts the Costs on the Poor (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Outsourcing Probation: A Lucrative and Growing Industry (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)


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