THOMASVILLE — People in Pelham and Bainbridge who can’t afford to pay city court fines or probation fees have been “wrongfully detained and jailed” by a Cairo probation company and “imprisoned for debt,” according to a lawsuit filed on Friday by the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta at the U.S. District Court in Albany.
Red Hills Community Probation LLC and its CEO, Margaret Crutchfield, are defendants. Also named are two of its probation officers, Pelham Chief of Police Nealie McCormick, Bainbridge Public Safety Director Eric Miller, the cities of Pelham and Bainbridge and several Pelham and Bainbridge police officers.
Red Hills contracts with local governments to supervise probation cases in the municipal courts of Bainbridge, Cairo, Pelham and Whigham, all under Judge Joshua C. Bell’s jurisdiction. The company also recently replaced Judicial Alternative of Georgia (JAG) as the probation company for Grady County State Court. Bell is also the State Court judge for Grady County and he pushed for Red Hills despite concerns expressed by Chairman LaFaye Copeland and former commissioner Billy Poitevint over complaints about the way the probation company reportedly treated people.
Crutchfield declined to comment on the case, saying, “Until I get served, I can’t really say anything. I hear it’s a big random thing and a lot of probation companies are being hit.”
According to the lawsuit, plaintiff Vera Cheeks is a 52-year-old indigent woman from Bainbridge who on Oct. 22, 2014 pleaded guilty in the Municipal Court of Bainbridge to failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. Her fiancé had to pawn her engagement ring for $50 before she was released, according to the complaint. She later contacted the Southern Center for Human Rights for help. It began investigating and, eventually, brought the lawsuit.
Another plaintiff, Adel Edwards, a 54-year-old, indigent, intellectually disabled Pelham man, pleaded guilty in the Municipal Court of Pelham to burning leaves in his yard without a permit. The lawsuit says he was immediately jailed for several days because he could not pay a $250 fine.
Additionally, Ulysses West, a 57-year-old Meigs man with a fixed income who received a traffic citation for speeding in Pelham on March 27, is required to appear in Pelham Municipal Court in the future. The lawsuit alleges that, without relief, West is likely to be the latest victim of this “unlawful conduct.”
The same is said of plaintiff James H. Davis Jr. This 54-year-old man from Atlanta lives on a fixed income of approximately $710 per month, most of which goes toward rent. On Jan. 29, he received a traffic citation for speeding in Pelham.
And, finally, on the day that Fred Barber, a 52-year-old, indigent Bainbridge man pleaded guilty in the Municipal Court of Bainbridge to driving a vehicle with a suspended registration, the lawsuit says the staff of Red Hills Community Probation detained him in a holding cell until a member of his family brought $70 to secure his release.
Sarah Geraghty, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said, “It is highly unusual to have date-of-court payment with the only alternative being jail time.”
She explained that usually, the appropriate course of action is for someone who can’t pay to be called before the judge. The judge is obligated to have an indigent hearing and to explore other means of payment and why the citizen failed to pay.
She said in these cases Bell would put these people on probation and they immediately met with the probation company. Red Hills wouldn’t let the plaintiffs leave until they made payment, she said. The lawsuit says, “In each case, the probation officer threatened the Plaintiff with jail if he or she did not pay a certain amount of money by the end of court proceedings.”
In a Monday article in the Daily Report, Geraghty said the “Red Hills probation officers ‘hold poor people for ransom over traffic tickets while their families scramble to come up with money to secure their release.’ The U.S. Supreme Court, she said, ‘has made it very clear that courts cannot send indigent people to jail just because they don't have money to pay a criminal fine.’”