A South Georgia probation company accused in a lawsuit of wrongfully detaining poor people will be closing its operation next month.
Red Hills Community Probation, which handles misdemeanor probation supervision for five small courts, informed state regulators that it will close in June, according to emails obtained Wednesday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The company’s decision came as the County and Municipal Probation Advisory Council (CMPAC), which regulates probation providers, was in the midst of a compliance review of Red Hills.
Red Hills is also facing a federal lawsuit, filed in April, that alleges it conspired with police officers to demand day-of-court payments from poor defendants at municipal courts in Bainbridge and Pelham. The actions resulted in false imprisonment, unlawful imprisonment for debt and other violations of rights, according to the lawsuit, which was prepared by attorneys at the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. The cities of Bainbridge and Pelham are among those named as defendants.
Maggie Crutchfield, the CEO of Red Hills, told the AJC Wednesday that she made a personal decision to close her company.
“Private probation is changing and it will be very difficult for small companies such as myself to provide the quality of service that these probationers deserve with the new law and the public perceptions,” Crutchfield said.
Gov. Nathan Deal this month signed into law a bill that will require significant changes this year to the state’s misdemeanor probation sytem, especially when it comes to handling indigent defendants. Thousands of Georgians are placed on probation simply to give them time to pay off traffic tickets that they couldn’t afford on the day they went to court.
Adel Edwards, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, came to court in Pelham after getting a ticket for burning leaves in his yard without a permit. Judge Joshua Bell ordered Edwards, who is disabled and destitute, to pay a $500 fine, spend 12 months on probation and pay Red Hills $44 a month in probation fees.
The lawsuit alleges that the probation company told Edwards to make an immediate payment on his case or go to jail. Edwards had no money and was jailed until a friend paid $250 to get him out, according to the lawsuit.
Red Hills denies the allegations, saying it suggests initial payments but does not require them. Bell, the judge, has declined to comment.
In emails obtained by the AJC, a state compliance officer noted that a review of records showed that most probationers made substantial down payments to Red Hills.
“We’re hopeful that the cities will arrange for a new [probation] provider that better respects the rights of indigent defendants,” said Sarah Geraghty, a senior attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights.
Geraghty filed a complaint with state regulators last fall alleging that Red Hills had required a day-of-court payment from an indigent defendant placed on probation to pay off a traffic ticket. State regulators responded to that complaint by saying they investigated the case and found no evidence of wrongdoing.
“We hope that in the future, CMPAC will devote sufficient resources to monitoring so that abuses like those described in the Red Hills lawsuit aren’t allowed to persist unchecked for years on end,” Geraghty said.