Suit claims private probation company wrongfully detains poor

Published 2:46 pm Thursday, April 16, 2015

Last October, Vera Cheeks went to Bainbridge Municipal Court and pleaded guilty to failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. She was fined $135 that she could not pay that day and was placed on three months probation.

Immediately following the sentencing, Cheeks met with a private probation officer who told her she would have to pay $50 before she could leave the courthouse or she would face incarceration. Her fiance pawned her engagement ring to make a payment so Cheeks could leave, according to a civil suit filed April 10 by Atlanta non-profit Southern Center for Human Rights at the U.S. District Court in Albany.

A private probation company, its officers and Bainbridge and Pelham city police officers have wrongfully detained and jailed poor people who could not afford court and probation fees, according to the suit.

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The suit alleges that employees of Red Hills Community Probation, based in Cairo, demanded a payment from the plaintiffs before they were allowed to leave the courthouse, threatening to jail them if they did not pay. The suit claims that this was made possible through the involvement of city police officers. The suit also alleges Red Hills demanded continued payment from probationers after their probation periods ended.

The five plaintiffs, who are all classified as indigent in the suit, seek damages and injunctive relief, claiming the company’s practices are unconstitutional and fraudulent.

“We look forward to working with the defendants in the case to resolve the issue expeditiously and to changing court practices to ensure indigent people are treated fairly,” said SCHR attorney Sarah Geraghty.

Red Hills contracts with local governments to provide probation services to several Southwest Georgia municipalities, including Bainbridge, Cairo, Pelham and Whigham, all of which are under Judge Josh Bell’s jurisdiction.

Red Hills Community Probation, LLC, its CEO Margaret Crutchfield, probation officers Martiele Pickle and Jodi Simpson, Pelham Chief of Police Nealie McCormick, former Bainbridge Public Safety Director Eric Miller, the cities of Bainbridge and Pelham as well as six police officers from Bainbridge and Pelham are named as defendants in the suit.

As of Thursday afternoon, the city of Bainbridge had not been formally served, and Red Hills CEO Maggie Crutchfield refused to comment until she had been served.

“As we do with all manners like this, we have referred it to our insurance carrier GIRMA, Georgia Interlocal Risk Management Agency, and they’ll review it and send it to their council and handle it on behalf of the city,” said Bainbridge City Manager Chris Hobby.

“In Bainbridge, defendants meet with a Red Hills probation officer in a room accessible through a door in the courtroom,” the suit reads. “Once the probationer enters that room, Red Hills personnel and Bainbridge Department of Public Safety officers, without legal authority or probable cause, prevent the probationer from leaving… The only other exit is through a locked door controlled by law enforcement officers.”

Geraghty said that she and other SCHR lawyers spoke with several other people who had similar experiences in Bainbridge and Pelham.

One of the plaintiffs, Adel Edwards of Pelham, received a citation for burning leaves in his yard without a permit. In 2013, he pleaded guilty in Pelham Municipal Court and was fined $500. Unable to pay, he was placed on 12 months probation and ordered to pay $44 per month. According to the suit, he met with a Red Hills probation officer who informed him that he owed $528 in “probation supervision fees” as well.

“Edwards and loved ones accompanying him that day told his probation officer that he was physically and intellectually disabled, that he could not work, and that he had no money,” the suit reads.

Edwards was also told he had to make a payment that day. He could not make the payment and was subsequently jailed “for several days until a friend was able to bring $250 to have Edwards released,” according to the suit.

After Edwards’ 12 months probation ended, the suit claims Red Hills demanded further payments from Edwards.

A third case described in the lawsuit involves a Bainbridge man on a fixed income sentenced a fine of $590 and 12 months probation.

Fred Barber was told “that he had to pay $280 in cash before he could leave the courthouse,” according to the suit.

Hobby said that Judge Bell has the authority to give alternate sentences like community service instead of fines.

“That’s something the city council has said they support and would like to see us do more of in lieu of incarceration. I think we’ll continue to encourage Judge Bell to take alternative sentencing, but I think he feels that he needs that leverage, the threat at least of sending someone to jail,” Hobby said. “We are very much in favor of alternative sentencing.”

In March, the federal court approved a settlement in a case claiming the Grady County State Court was collecting unauthorized “administrative costs” from residents who came before Judge William Bass. SCHR represented the plaintiffs in the case. The settlement ordered Grady County to refund those who paid the administrative costs since Sept. 24, 2011, the amount they paid, up to $700, plus an additional $100.

Judge Bell could not immediately be reached for comment.

This story is developing and will be updated as more information becomes available.