Sentinel Offender Services Sued for Collecting Illegal Fees In Atlanta Municipal Court

26th July, 2017

Atlanta, GA – Today, a civil rights lawsuit was filed against Sentinel Offender Services (“Sentinel”), a private probation company, on behalf of people in Atlanta who were forced by Sentinel to pay illegal fees while on “pay-only” probation for traffic violations.  The lawsuit, brought by the Southern Center for Human Rights and Caplan Cobb LLP, seeks the return of money that Sentinel illegally collected from people sentenced to “pay-only” probation by the Atlanta Municipal Court.  

Like many Georgia courts, the Atlanta Municipal Court uses “pay-only” probation as a payment plan.  People who are charged with minor offenses and unable to pay fines immediately upon sentencing are given probation, usually under the supervision of for-profit companies like Sentinel.  These people are then required to pay additional “probation supervision fees,” which can double their financial obligations.  In 2016, Georgia probation providers collected $87 million in fines for local governments, and pocketed an estimated $34 million in fees. Because of these policies, Georgia has a far higher number and rate of people on probation than any other state in the nation. 

The new lawsuit shows that in Atlanta, Sentinel probation officers charged unauthorized $20 “enrollment fees,” in addition to the $27 monthly “probation supervision fees” that Sentinel was allowed to collect from people on pay-only probation.  

 

•Plaintiff Stacey Adams appeared before the Atlanta Municipal Court in July 2015.  She was sentenced to pay $215 for making a U-turn.  Because she could not afford to pay the fine immediately, she was sentenced to pay-only probation and required to pay Sentinel an extra $81 in “supervision fees.” Sentinel then forced her to pay an additional $20 “enrollment fee” that was neither ordered nor authorized by the court, before Sentinel would close her case.

•Plaintiff Jerry Saint Vil was required to pay Sentinel’s illegal $20 fee three times between January 2015 and December 2016, even though it was not ordered by the court.  In one case, while Saint Vil was on pay-only probation to pay a $215 fine for failure to obey a traffic control device, Sentinel made him sign a form “acknowledging” that the court ordered him to pay the illegal $20 fee, and that “noncompliance” with this false acknowledgment could result in his incarceration.  

Until recently, Sentinel was the one of the largest probation companies in the country, and had contracts with 71 courts in Georgia. The company supervised people on probation at the Atlanta Municipal Court from 2006 to 2017, when it sold all its Georgia contracts to another company.  

Records cited in the lawsuit show that Sentinel left Atlanta because the company’s profits were down as the result of a 2015 law, which was passed to address widespread abuses in the misdemeanor probation system.  Among other measures, the law capped the amount of money that companies could take from people on pay-only probation. In some cases challenged by the new lawsuit, Sentinel’s unauthorized $20 “enrollment fee” directly violated the 2015 law’s protections for low-income probationers. 

Records from a state audit also show that regulators from the Department of Community Supervision (DCS) told Sentinel it had no authority to collect the “enrollment fees” challenged in the lawsuit.  A Sentinel executive tried to have DCS’s findings reversed because, he argued, “Sentinel no longer serves the Atlanta Municipal Court.”  

“This case shows how some private probation companies are trying to make an end-run around protections the legislature enacted to stop the exploitation of low-income people,” said Akiva Freidlin, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “It’s another example of what happens when our local governments use courts to raise money from people who can least afford to pay, and then let private companies have part of the business.” 

“The practice of forcing the poor to pay illegal fees under the threat of incarceration must stop.  We look forward to seeking full recovery of the illegal fees Sentinel collected from our clients and fellow citizens,” said Michael Caplan, founding partner of Caplan Cobb LLP, co-counsel for the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs seek damages and the return of all money that was taken unlawfully. The case—Stacey Adams, et al. v. Sentinel Offender Services, LLC, et al.—was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. 

 

To read the complaint, click here.