- By Rhonda Cook The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A federal judge on Tuesday signed off on an agreement that forces a private probation company to repay 106 mostly impoverished people convicted of traffic offenses for drug tests they were forced to take without a judge’s order.
On top of reimbursing those who unnecessarily paid for drug testing, Sentinel Offender Services must also pay them damages up to $90 for each unauthorized urine test.
All total, Sentinel will spend $96,235.15 to reimburse the one-time defendants and to reimburse the Southern Center for Human Rights the $25,000 it cost the organization to bring the suit.
“The company had a pattern of overreaching for financial gain,” said Southern Center for Human Rights attorney Sarah Geraghty. “We hope that the remaining companies receive the message that this kind of overreaching for financial gain will be met with an aggressive response.”
Neither Sentinel nor it’s lawyers responded to emailed requests for comment but it has said in court documents that the company did nothing wrong.
The private probation industry has been controversial in Georgia and nationwide. Some critics have said private probation is akin to debtors’ prisons as most of those people placed under supervision are there because they are too poor to pay court times and fees for traffic offenses or minor crimes like public intoxication.
Sentinel was the largest of them, but in recent years it suffered a series of financial setbacks because of court cases.
Earlier this year, Sentinel paid 12 Georgians — all of them poor — $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit that claimed the company was having them illegally jailed for not paying supervision fees and fines for traffic offenses or minor crimes.
And a year ago, Sentinel settled cases with three other individuals for a combined $425,000, again for putting them in jail for not paying fees and fines. Sentinel stopped providing probation supervision in Georgia earlier this year.
The suit resolved most recently was brought by Rita Luse and Marianne Ligocki, but it was expanded to cover anyone else whom Sentinel required to submit to drug testing even though the White County Probate Court judge did not order it.
“The probate judge in this case made individualized decisions about whether particular people should be subjected to drug tests. In the case of Ms. Luce and Ms. Ligocki he decided they should not,” Geraghty said.
Luse, 63, and Ligocki, 47, were put on probation because they needed time to pay their fines.
Ligocki was stopped at a roadside checkpoint Feb. 10, 2015, and cited for driving on a suspended license. Five months later, she pleaded guilty and was fined $313.02, which she could not pay. So she was put on probation until the fine was satisfied, costing her a $44-a-month supervision fee. But Sentinel also demanded an additional $15 each time she had to take an unnecessary drug test.
In March 2014, Luse pleaded guilty to driving without a license and was fined $775.75, which she also could not pay. Like Ligocki, Luse paid Sentinel a $44-a-month supervision fee but she also was charged for drug testing even though the White County Probate Court judge did not order it.
The two women said in their complaint that in addition to the extra financial burden, they were humiliated. They said they were forced to give urine samples while someone watched, sometimes in a room with the door open.
Even though the courts ruled decades ago that people cannot be jailed simply because they cannot afford to pay a fine, the practice continued.
And in 2015, the state Legislature changed the law, putting in place more restrictions such as requiring a judge to determine if a defendant has the ability to pay and to offer community service as an alternative if they couldn’t.
For several months, Ligocki paid for unnecessary drug testing as well as a monthly supervision fee and a little toward her fine. Halfway through her probation sentence, Ligocki had paid $131 toward her fine plus $305 in fees to Sentinel.
Luse made her payments on time for six months, but then she had a time when she did not have the funds. Luse asked to be allowed to pay in a “few days” when she got her next paycheck, but Sentinel’s probation officer told the grandmother to borrow the $140 or go to jail, according to the complaint.
Ligocki and Luse, however, will receive larger payouts then the others in the class action suit because they filed the initial case. Ligocki will receive $7,500 and Luse will get $17,5000, because she was threatened with jail.
Georgia leads the nation in the number of people on probation for felonies and misdemeanors, as well as for traffic offenses and city ordinance violations with more than 502,000 under supervision in 2015, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That’s 5,823 out of every 100,000 people in Georgia on probation or parole.
Texas was second with 496,900 people on probation or parole.