The lawsuit, filed in April 2015 by the Southern Center for Human Rights, which has filed similar lawsuits against for-profit, private probation companies operating across the Southeast United States.
The lawsuit filed in Decatur County accused employees of Red Hills Community Probation, LLC (“Red Hills”) routinely demanding large amounts of money from probationers, seizing them and detaining them in the local courthouses in Bainbridge and Pelham until they or their family members made a payment on their fines and fees. In addition, the employees allegedly used threats and misrepresentations to coerce people to report and pay long after their probation terms were complete.
“We applaud the City of Bainbridge and the Municipal Court for doing the right thing when confronted with evidence of widespread, illegal detentions of indigent people by private probation officers,” attorney Sarah Geraghty said in a news release. She added, “Practices like those described in this lawsuit erode public confidence in law enforcement and undermine the integrity of the court system.”
Per the terms of the settlement, the City of Bainbridge does not admit to any wrongdoing, but agrees to pay three plaintiffs and also agreed to change court procedures related to probation. The settlement agreement also would resolve claims against Bainbridge’s former public safety director, Eric Miller.
Raleigh Rollins of Alexander & Vann in Thomasville, who defended the City of Bainbridge and former police chief Eric Miller, commented on the lawsuit in The Daily Report, a legal publication in Atlanta, Ga. Rollins said the lawsuit “called our attention to something we didn’t realize was going on. When we did, we quickly were able to come to an understanding as to the way things should work and we reached an agreement before we even filed an answer.”
“It’s been a pretty cooperative process,” Rollins added. “We learned of a problem and took the steps necessary to resolve the problem.”
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit were Adel Edwards, Vera Cheeks, and Fred Barber. They appeared in Bainbridge municipal court to resolve traffic tickets or ordinance violations. After being sentenced, the indigent plaintiffs met with Red Hills probation officers, who allegedly detained them with the assistance of local police officers.
Cheeks and another plaintiff will get $15,000 payouts and three more plaintiffs detained by the City of Pelham–which formerly had a contract to house City of Bainbridge inmates–will get $100 each in the settlement.
A similar lawsuit was filed naming the City of Pelham, the Pelham Police Department and Red Hills Community Probation as defendants. That lawsuit has not been settled or tried so far. The Pelham City Council voted to close down the Pelham City Jail, which is the source of another lawsuit not related to probation issues.
Red Hills Community Probation, which was based in Cairo, Ga., and handled misdemeanor probation supervision in five small courts, closed its operation in June 2015, following the filing of the lawsuit.
The City of Bainbridge now has a contract with Judicial Alternatives of Georgia to perform misdemeanor probation services. People sentenced to probation in State Court and Superior Court report to a probation department run by the State of Georgia.
Changes being made at Bainbridge Municipal Court
Under the terms of the consent order, the Bainbridge Municipal Court will reform many of its policies and procedures. The city and the court will:
- Stop the practice of detaining people to coerce them to make date-of-court payments.
- Stop the practice of requiring people to pay and report after the expiration of the probation term.
- Stop probation officers from applying or threatening to seek warrants for failure to pay unless the officer has a good faith belief that the person has the present ability to pay.
- Stop probation officers from pressuring probationers to have their friends and family members pay their fees.
- Prohibit the incarceration of persons for the sole reason of failure to pay, unless the failure to pay was willful.
- Increase procedural protections for people on probation when the probation officer alleges a failure to report.
- Establish a system for recording and responding to complaints about probation officers.
- Permit persons sentenced to jail to earn good-time credit.
- Improve court record-keeping procedures and require the probation provider to file all court paperwork instead of keeping such paperwork in its private files.
Related Story: Judge throws out lawsuit over private probation company (Augusta Chronicle)