A private probation company working at the Atlanta Municipal Court collected illegal fees from people who were placed on "pay only" probation to pay off traffic tickets, according to a new civil rights lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed against Sentinel Offender Services, the company that formerly provided private probation services for the Atlanta court. The lawsuit, brought by Southern Center for Human Rights and Caplan Cobb LLP, is asking for the return of "enrollment" fees that the company collected, which the lawsuit says were not legal.
Plaintiff Stacey Adams was fined $215 for making an improper U-turn when she went to the Atlanta court in July of 2015, according to the lawsuit. She couldn't afford to pay the fine immediately. Like many courts in Georgia, Atlanta Municipal Court places people who can't pay traffic tickets immediately on probation with a private company, to allow them to make payments over time.
Adams was required to pay an additional $81 in "supervision" fees as part of the "pay only" probation system. But the lawsuit said Sentinel also imposed a $20 "enrollment fee" that wasn't authorized by the court. That fee, imposed on Adams and others, was not legal, according to the lawsuit.
“The practice of forcing the poor to pay illegal fees under the threat of incarceration must stop," said Michael Caplan, one of the attorneys in the case, in a statement announcing the lawsuit. "We look forward to seeking full recovery of the illegal fees Sentinel collected from our clients and fellow citizens."
Sentinel no longer provides private probation services at the Atlanta court, which has since contracted with another company.
The AJC could not immediately reach Sentinel for a comment on the case.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has written extensively about abuses in the private probation system in recent years. The widely-used system to allow poor people to pay off tickets over time routinely doubled the cost of traffic tickets for those who couldn't pay when they went to court. Georgia places more people on probation than any other state, primarily because it uses probation as a payment system.
The Georgia General Assembly passed sweeping reforms to the system in 2015 to limit fees in “pay only” cases and give judges the clear authority to waive fines and fees or order community service hours if the costs are beyond what an offender can afford.
“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.”
Sentinel, which provides a range of services across the country, got out of the private probation business in Georgia earlier this year. It had faced numerous lawsuits in Georgia.
The new suit also says that Sentinel required plaintiff Jerry Saint Vil to pay the "enrollment" fee three times. In one case, according to the complaint, Saint Vil was on probation so that he could pay off a $215 fine for failure to obey a traffic control device. The lawsuit says that Sentinel required him to sign a form saying that a failure to pay could result in his being locked up.
The lawsuit says that regulators from the Georgia Department of Community Supervision, which oversees probation providers, informed Sentinel that it did not have the authority to collect the "enrollment" fees.