A private probation company used a "March Madness" bonus program to encourage employees to meet goals for collecting cash from probationers, according to a document revealed in an Augusta court case.
Sentinel Offender Services offered a chance at a cash bonus of up to $1,000 for probation employees who met the program's "Slam Dunk" requirements. The program also offered the top performers a chance to win a free trip to Hilton Head Island.
The bonus program played a small part in the Augusta court case, in which a jury last week found that a woman who had been on probation with Sentinel Offender Services was falsely arrested and locked up.
But the "March Madness" memo offers strong evidence, according to critics, that for-profit probation companies are too focused on pumping up their profits.
"This kind of language is totally inappropriate coming from people who are supposed to be functioning as officers of the court," said Sarah Geraghty, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. "This is not a game. We're talking about collecting money mostly from poor people who are only on probation because they couldn't afford to pay a fine. Using sports analogies and rewarding high-collecting employees with money and vacations incentivizes the kind of aggressive and unseemly collection tactics for which this industry has become known."
Geraghty wasn't involved the Augusta case, but she has repeatedly challenged private probation companies in court. Those challenges include a pending case that accuses Sentinel of illegally forcing low-income women to take and pay for urine screens that were not ordered by a judge.
Mark Contestabile, Sentinel's Chief Business Development Officer and Divisional President, strongly defended the company's bonus programs in a statement Friday to the AJC.
"The former incentive program is just for our people to do a good job," Contestabile said. "Nothing in the incentive plan encouraged harsh treatment or improper actions. Our commitment has always been that good case management leads to good services and collections of victims’ restitution, service fees, and state ordered fines imposed by the Court."
The jury in the Augusta case last week found that the plaintiff, Kathleen Hucks, was a victim of false arrest and imprisonment. The jury ordered Sentinel to pay $50,000 in damages and $125,000 in attorney fees to Hucks. The jury did not order any punitive damages.
Hucks, the plaintiff in the Augusta case, had been placed on probation with Sentinel in 2006 for DUI, possession of marijuana and driving on a suspended license. Hucks accused Sentinel of improperly obtaining an arrest warrant for her after her probation was over, which led to her being locked up for more than two weeks in 2012 before she could appear before a judge who released her.
"Her probation was over with in 2008 – and she got picked up on a warrant that never should have been issued," said Jack Long, one of the attorneys representing Hucks.
Hucks' attorneys argued that Sentinel improperly and illegally sought her arrest as a way to get more money from her. The lawyers offered up Sentinel's bonus programs as evidence.
"The March Madness program shows that they are encouraging probation officers to do things to increase their revenues so they can get a bonus," Long said. "How do you increase your revenues? Well, you issue warrants against people. . . . You write them a letter and say we'll recall the warrant if you pay up."
Long said he has 16 similar pending cases against Sentinel in Richmond and Columbia counties challenging Sentinel's handling of misdemeanor probation cases.
Contestabile strongly dismissed the notion that bonus programs did anything other than improve the performance of the probation officers working for Sentinel.
"The critics want to focus on our efforts to reward our employees for diligently serving their court, enhancing public safety and being good stewards of company resources," Contestabile told the AJC. "In order for an employee to receive a reward he/she had to be a person with no disciplinary actions, an employee with good attendance and attitude, a person who represented themselves properly in court, with probationers and within the team of the local office. Nothing in the incentive program changes the service fee amount or duration. The plan encourages contact and efficiency by the probation officer with the probationer who committed crimes such as DUI, cruelty to children in the third degree, and domestic battery. We want our folks to be incentivized to do their best to serve the community and to administer the Court’s orders in a very difficult job."
To see a copy of Sentinel's bonus document, click here: March Madness memo
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Read the AJC's 2015 in-depth story on misdemeanor probation in Georgia