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Class Action Suit Filed Against Ga. Private Probation Company

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on March 27, 2015 3:50 PM

Given the success that John Oliver's HBO show "Last Week Tonight" had influencing the net neutrality conversation, maybe the private probation system will have some luck, too.

Thanks in part to Oliver, and to the Department of Justice report on Ferguson, Missouri, the nation knows that local police departments often charge defendants fines and fees well in excess of the original fines. These fees often include making a defendant pay for his own probation, and the proceeds usually go straight to the private probation company.

A federal class action complaint in Georgia, filed last week, wants to challenge that arrangement.

Fines and Fees

Judicial Alternatives of Georgia is, according to a proposed class action complaint filed by Philip Keen, a private probation company contracted "to handle misdemeanors and traffic offenses" by "a number of courts in Georgia."

In 2012, Keen pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and was placed on probation, which was supervised by Judicial Alternatives of Georgia. To date, the complaint says, Keen has paid Judicial Alternatives almost $1,400 in fines, surcharges, and probation fees.

The core of Keen's lawsuit concerns a contract entered into by the "then-governing authority" of Treutlen County, Georgia, in 2008, when the county contracted with Judicial Alternatives to provide probation services. In 2009, new commissioners took office, and during 2009, the contract between the county and Judicial Alternatives -- which was for only one year -- expired.

The contract purports to renew automatically, but state law doesn't allow that. Instead, once a contract with a local government expires, the current governing body has to renew it manually. Really, after 2009, Judicial Alternatives was operating without a contract and thus wasn't "lawfully acting as a private probation company."

Additionally, Keen's suit claims that the statute authorizing private probation companies doesn't allow them to charge a fee to probationers for their services and doesn't "contain adequate provisions and procedures to prevent incarceration of probationers on account of their indigency or to prevent imprisonment of citizens because of failure to pay a debt owed to a private, for-profit corporation."

The New Debtor's Prison

It's this last part that's so startling to people who learn about private probation companies. The United States formally abolished federal debtor's prisons in the 19th century, but today, thousands of people are incarcerated for failure to pay a debt -- namely, probation fees -- even if they can't afford to pay. (This is in spite of a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision forbidding jailing probationers who are truly indigent and can't pay a probation fee.)

Even public probation departments overcharge, notes the Southern Center for Human Rights. A woman from a small town near Savannah, Georgia given the option to pay off a $580 fine for driving with a suspended vehicle registration over the course of a year ended up paying $1,300 once the court added $60 a month in "supervision" fees.

Last November, the Georgia Supreme Court said there was nothing wrong with contracting probation supervision to private companies, but cautioned that private probation companies weren't authorized to unilaterally extend offenders' probation time for failing to pay fees.

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