The City of Bainbridge and the City of Cairo plan to fight two lawsuits filed against a private probation company that both cities’ municipal courts have contracts with, attorneys representing the defendants said.
Case #1 – Federal Court
The first lawsuit was filed April 10 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, Albany Division. The plaintiffs are five Southwest Georgia citizens who claim they were unfairly treated by Red Hills Community Probation of Cairo, Ga. The company has contracts with the municipal courts of Pelham, Bainbridge and Cairo. The lawsuit was prepared by attorneys with the Southern Center for Human Rights, an Atlanta-based non-profit organization.
The lawsuit alleges that the plaintiffs were either wrongfully detained or jailed because they could not afford to make payments on city court fines and probation supervision fees. The lawsuit claims Red Hills Probation worked in tandem with local police officers to detain or jail the probationers who could not afford to pay fines and fees.
In addition to Red Hills Community Probation, other defendants include the owner of the private probation company, two probation officers, the City of Pelham, the City of Bainbridge, three unnamed Pelham police officers, three unnamed Bainbridge police officers, Pelham Police Chief Nealie McCormick and Eric Miller, a former director of Bainbridge Public Safety.
The City of Cairo is not a defendant in the federal case, but it was named a defendant in a lawsuit filed against Red Hills Probation in Grady County Superior Court.
Whigham, Ga., attorney Josh Bell, who serves as the appointed municipal court judge in Bainbridge, Cairo and Pelham, is not a defendant in the lawsuit but has been mentioned in some media reports about the federal case. Bell politely declined to comment on the lawsuits, saying it would not be proper for him to do so given his judicial position.
View the full federal civil complaint, Edwards et. al. vs. Red Hills Community Probation et al. (PDF)
For more background on probation issues in the State of Georgia, you can read state auditors’ report on misdemeanor probation operations in Georgia from 2014. It gives some history on the probation system in Georgia, and provides recommendations for improvements to the system statewide.
Until 1991, all probation sentences were handled by the Georgia Department of Corrections, a local government probation office, or court staff. A 1991 law allowed city and county governments to hire private contractors to oversee probation, and in 2000, the Georgia Department of Corrections was limited to only oversee people serving probation on felony offenses.
In August of 2013, there were 88 private probation providers in Georgia, overseeing approximately 175,000 people on misdemeanor probation.
The second lawsuit was filed in late April by T.W. Green vs. the City of Cairo and Red Hills Community Probation. The lawsuit alleges Green was sentenced to 12 months probation and more than $1,200 in fines. The lawsuit alleges Green was jailed when he could not pay a $400 initial payment toward his court costs.
Just to be clear, the municipal governments of Bainbridge and Pelham are not defendants in the Grady County Superior Court case.
Todd Butler, a Grady County attorney, is representing Green.
Defendants plan to challenge allegations in court
Raleigh Rollins Jr., a partner with Alexander and Vann in Thomasville, is representing the City of Bainbridge at the request of the city’s insurance company. Rollins said it is his personal policy not to comment in depth on pending litigation.
“I will say that we take issue with the allegations in the complaint,” Rollins said.
Eric Gay, a Bainbridge attorney who is representing Red Hills Probation in two separate lawsuits-one state, one federal-said his client would also seek to refute the allegations in the lawsuits.
“I’m confident that at the end of the day, the truth will be seen,” Gay said. “I believe the lawsuits and allegations will be shown to be hastily put together, and not backed with adequate facts to make the complaints.”
Gay said he was aware that there have been other lawsuits have been recently filed against private probation companies around the state.
“I don’t know how other probation companies operate, but I believe the practices these lawsuits are complaining no longer exist in our area. In fact, I don’t believe the practices have been used in our area in some time. I think we have been more progressive in Southwest Georgia, primarily because we have had judges and others involved in the criminal justice system who spoke up, and said ‘This is not the way that things should be done.'”
One aspect of the civil complaint filed against Red Hills Probation and others in Grady County seeks to have the State of Georgia revoke the probation licensing of Red Hills owner and CEO, Margaret Crutchfield.
Gay said he felt Ms. Crutchfield was being unfairly targeted by the complaint.
“The core of these lawsuits are allegations against a probation company. As the owner of the the company, she was acting on behalf of the business, and not on a personal level,” Gay said. “To level these allegations that could affect her ability to be a probation officer is both reckless and improper.”
As a side note, Rollins said he expected former Bainbridge Public Safety Director Eric Miller could be removed from the list of defendants, since Miller is no longer employed with the City of Bainbridge.
Gay said the defendants in the federal case are expected to file a response in the Albany federal court within the first two weeks of May. Later in the month, the defendants in the Grady County State Court case will file their responses.
After the defendants file their responses, the court will require parties on both sides of the lawsuit to meet before a judge, Rollins said.
Then the discovery phase will begin, in which both sides will have the opportunity to find out all that they can about the other’s case and associated evidence.
After discovery, the defense attorneys will evaluate where they stand in the case, and decide whether to ask a judge for a summary judgement in the defendants’ favor, or request that the judge dismiss the case altogether.
If the defendants don’t make those requests, or the judge does not grant them, the cases will likely proceed to a trial, according to Rollins.