Legal settlement to affect policies in Bainbridge Municipal Court

Published 8:53 pm Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The plaintiffs of Edwards v. Red Hills Community Probation, LLC, et al. and the City of Bainbridge recently reached a settlement that will lead to Bainbridge Municipal Court policy changes that aim to prevent abuse of indigent probationers.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in April 2015 on behalf of indigent people alleging the private probation company Red Hills Community Probation would “routinely demand 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,” according to the Atlanta non-profit Southern Center for Human Rights.

The terms of the settlement include that the city’s insurance carrier, Georgia Interlocal Risk Management Agency, pay $15,000 each to the two Bainbridge plaintiffs in the case and $100 each to the three Pelham plaintiffs, a total of $30,300. The terms mainly deal with court policy and establishing guidelines for probation officers to prevent potential abuse of indigent probationers. Some of those policies include:

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• Probationers be entitled to request modification of probation conditions if they cannot afford payment

• 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

• Permit persons sentenced to jail to earn good-time credit

• The Bainbridge Public Safety director receives and investigates credible complaints about probation officers

“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,” said SCHR attorney Sarah Geraghty in a news release. “Practices like those described in this lawsuit erode public confidence in law enforcement and undermine the integrity of the court system.”

“We are very pleased to have this matter settled and are grateful to the Southern Center for Human Rights for bringing a situation we were previously unaware of to our attention,” Bainbridge City Manager Chris Hobby said in a statement. “We very much enjoyed working with the Southern Center personnel to resolve this matter. We are committed to moving forward in an efficient and legally correct manner.”

One of the allegations in the original suit was that Red Hills probation officers 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 also alleged Red Hills demanded continued payment from probationers after their probation periods ended.

The city never formally filed an answer to the allegations, but “the City of Bainbridge denies that it implemented or authorized an ‘Immediate Seizure Policy’ or an ‘Expired Probation Sentence Policy’ with respect to its Municipal Court,” according to the consent order.

The private probation company was based out of Cairo and closed in June 2015. The company contracted with various local governments, providing probation services to several Southwest Georgia municipalities, including Bainbridge, Cairo, Pelham and Whigham, all of which were under Judge Josh Bell’s jurisdiction at the time the lawsuit was filed. About a month after the lawsuit was filed, Bell notified Red Hills the courts he presided over would terminate their contracts.

In June, the Bainbridge City Council approved a contract with a new probation service provider, Judicial Alternatives of Georgia, Inc.

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 were named as defendants in the suit.

According to SCHR, the case against Bainbridge will be resolved, but the litigation will proceed between the plaintiffs and the remaining defendants, the City of Pelham and Red Hills Community Probation, LLC and its former probation officers Pickle and Simpson.

Pickle is currently the chief probation officer at JAG’s Bainbridge office, according to its website.

Bainbridge Municipal Court Judge Josh Bell did not return requests for comment.