Fred Slider spends almost all his time in his quiet townhouse at the edge of Augusta, Georgia, with the shades down. Tan carpet, smushed brown couches, medications in a row in the bathroom. He’s thin, in baggy jeans and a T-shirt, and he’s still getting used to how hard it is to speak: Slider talks with a thick stutter due to a recent brain injury. When we met, his mother, Sherrell Slider, did most of the talking. Slider sat next to her on the couch, nodding in silent agreement.
“He lost everything,” she said. “I mean, everything.”
Slider, who’s 36, used to be smile more, she said. He ate heartily, talked and laughed easily, and worked for decent money at a pawn shop. But in two separate incidents in 2014 and 2015, Slider was charged with a stop sign violation, driving without a license, and a DUI.
After pleading guilty and serving ten days in jail over the DUI, he was put on probation to ensure he paid off the $3,385 he had racked up in fines. The judge turned him over to a probation company called Sentinel Offender Services. Sentinel was just supposed to make sure Slider paid his fines. Instead, it outfitted Slider with a bulky ankle bracelet that would check his sweat for alcohol every half hour, even though his sentence didn’t forbid him from drinking, and charged him more money.
Slider was required to pay $330 a month for the device, on top of the $708 per month he had to pay toward his fines. Throw in $450 a month for child support, and Slider’s obligations nearly exceeded his total monthly income. Hundreds of dollars in these monthly costs went straight to Sentinel.
“It’s just wrong to have contract probationers,” said Sherrell Slider. “It’s just wrong.”
In theory, probation in the U.S. is a way to give people a chance to rehabilitate outside of an institution. Misdemeanor probation is presented as a gentler sentence than jail. But in practice, much of misdemeanor probation is just a prolonged, expensive payment plan for people who can’t afford fines. And for Fred Slider, the whole system backfired. He fell deeper and deeper into debt until he ended up back in court in late 2015 over non-payment and a monitoring violation; Sentinel said the ankle monitor showed evidence of tampering, which Slider denies. The judge sent him back to jail. After he got out, he lost his job, fell into a depression, and started drinking a lot, his mother said. One night he got drunk and ran his car off the road, suffering a traumatic brain injury.
Sentinel, the company that put the ankle monitor on Slider, was founded in 1993. It boasts contracts in 48 states for a variety of “offender services” many of which are “offender-funded.” The company does probation supervision, GPS ankle monitoring, and even anger management classes, all for a fee to defendants.
The private probation industry has grown over the last two decades: In Georgia alone, there are dozens of companies like Sentinel. They contract directly with municipal courts, dealing mostly with cases of traffic violations and petty crimes, replacing what used to be court-run probation offices. The companies charge the probationers themselves a monthly fee, selling the model as a money-saver for cities and counties. But much of the time, the original probation is due simply to an inability to pay fines to the court. In other words, private probation is an expensive substitute for a payment plan. The result is nothing short of a racket.
Between court fees, fees paid to probation companies, and in some cases, fees for electronic monitors, defendants can end up paying two or three or five times what they would’ve originally owed in fines. Activists and legal advocates have started to pay attention to the growing industry.
“We’ve put private industry into the courts. And their job is not to administer justice, but to make a profit.”
“This is not about public safety, this is not about road safety, this is about money,” said Xochitl Bervera with the Racial Justice Action Center in Atlanta, where the city court also uses private probation providers. She’s heard many stories similar to Fred Slider’s, where people end up in jail over not paying fines, she said. Probation companies use the threat of jail to keep the payments coming in. Debtor’s prison is illegal in the U.S. and a 1983 Supreme Court decision, Bearden v. Georgia, reaffirmed that judges cannot jail people for inability to pay. But the companies bank on people not knowing their rights, she said. “They’ll absolutely make insinuations that, ‘if you don’t pay, we’re gonna put you back in jail.’”
Georgia is the epicenter of the private probation trend. The state has the most people on probation, period, and about 80 percent of its courts use private companies to do their dirty work. Of the hundreds of courts in the state that deal with misdemeanors, few have competitive, transparent bidding processes for contracts with private probationers. Dozens of lawsuits have alleged these companies and the courts that contract with them are sending people to jail for nonpayment in violation of the constitutional right to due process.
The companies, meanwhile, offer a macabre roster of “services” to the courts, including drug treatment courses, probation monitoring, electronic ankle monitors, behavior classes and even domestic violence classes — all, of course, for a fee to the defendants, who are almost always poor. The prices for these “services” vary widely across the state, with little explanation of the costs behind them. An ankle monitor, for example, might range from $7 to $15 per day, plus an installation fee. Probation fees can be anywhere between $15 and $40 a month. These dollars go straight to private companies, which aren’t required to report revenues or profits to the governmental bodies they contract with.
At some point during Slider’s incarceration, his mother Sherrell says she spent some hours just observing outside Sentinel’s offices in Augusta, a space she described as “a shack” about the size of a double-wide trailer. People came in out all day, she says, depositing their cash with Sentinel “like it was a bank.” The people all looked like her son. “We saw two white people go in and out of that building in four hours,” she said. “The rest of the people going in that building were poor and black.”
Sentinel’s office in Augusta has since closed down — and that’s thanks in part to Fred Slider’s pro bono lawyer, Jack Long, who has won 17 settlements against private probation companies.
Jack Long doesn’t come on strong at first. He’s understated, formal, with thinning white hair and sharp eyes. But his small law office near downtown Augusta betrays an obsession: There are papers everywhere, piled on the floors, the desk, inside closets, on every possible surface across two giant high-ceilinged office rooms. Nearly every stack is full of documents about private probation companies: Sentinel, Middle Georgia Probation, Providence Community Corrections, Professional Probation Services.
Long ushers me from pile to pile, plucking up lawsuits and depositions and contracts, lists of services and fees. As we go, he talks continually, trying to persuade me of the problems with private probation.
“It’s a cottage industry,” Long says. “We’ve put private industry into the courts. And their job is not to administer justice, but to make a profit.”
He started fighting private probation cases by chance: In 2007 a friend of his, a public defender in Richmond County, found out about a defendant who’d been thrown in jail over her inability pay probation fees to Sentinel. The two lawyers got an appeals court judge to let the woman out of jail, arguing she was being held unconstitutionally.
In 2010, another one came up: A man named Hills McGee, a war veteran and diagnosed schizophrenic, living off his VA pension. He was locked up over $187 in fees he still owed Sentinel after a disorderly conduct charge. Long found McGee sitting in the local jail and got him released. Years later, Long won a modest settlement for McGee in a suit against Sentinel.
Since then, these stories have come his way year after year. Much of his work is pro bono. The institution of private probation has taken some hits — this year Augusta stopped using private probation and went back to a court-run system after a judge was persuaded of the problems with Sentinel and companies like it. But many companies are still operating. “The Supreme Court of the United States in 1983 said it’s illegal to lock somebody up because they’re poor,” he said. “Here we are, 34 years later, and it’s still going on. And it’s wrong.”
The fight against private probation continues to play out one case at a time. Jack Long recently won over $2 million of settlements against Sentinel. In late July, the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a new lawsuit against Sentinel, alleging it charged probationers fees that weren’t in its contract with the city. And Long has another appeal pending in federal court, the 11th district — alleging private probation contracts in Brunswick, Georgia, amount to a violation of due process under the 14th Amendment and put a woman named Christina Brinson in jail just for being poor. But until a high court forces Georgia’s lower courts to establish standards, or legislatures directly regulate private probation fees, Long believes the industry will continue to grow its reach.
Earlier this year, Sentinel left the state of Georgia entirely.
A Georgia law went into effect in 2015 that placed a limit on how long someone can be on probation just for inability to pay. The Marshall Project reported that this is what ultimately drove the company to stop working in the state, although many of its contracts with smaller courts have simply been transferred to a smaller company called CSRA. Sentinel didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
“I thought we were middle class. But I’ve come to understand we’re poor.”
According to Long’s public records requests, some 35 private probation companies still operate in the state. But many argue that the responsibility for the problems with private probation ultimately lies not with the companies, but with the courts.
Judge Jason Ashford of the Houston County State Court says he has used private probation for years — first Sentinel, now CSRA. He says it’s an inexpensive, efficient way to monitor people. He says judges can and should convert fines to community service based on someone’s inability to pay, and he says he’s never locked someone up for nonpayment alone.
The private companies, Ashford insists, aren’t the problem.
“They get a bad rap because there’s people sitting in jail for not paying the fees,” he said. “But last time I checked there’s a judge that makes that decision.”
But Long says there are plenty of lazy and ill-informed judges in misdemeanor courts; they may not even know that they are doing something unconstitutional when they send indigent defendants back to jail. And he says they simply see privatized probation as a convenience.
“These judges have no idea how much money is being made, and they don’t care,” he says, “because it doesn’t affect them. They don’t give a damn.”
Long just got bad news in Fred Slider’s case.
Long started representing Slider in early 2016, when a friend of his alerted him to yet another case of Sentinel helping send someone to jail in Augusta.
Long argued that Slider never should have been placed on an expensive ankle monitor in the first place. An Augusta court declined to hear his appeal in January, so Long appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia, asking that the court establish consistent guidelines for determining if a defendant is indigent before passing them onto a private probationer. In early July, the Supreme Court turned down that request, which means there is still no statewide standard for judges to decide if someone can truly afford private probation fees. In other words, Slider’s case is over.
When we last talked, Sherrell Slider said her son wasn’t doing well: He’d recently come home from another hospitalization, this time for multiple organ failure. The family’s spending an arm and a leg on his medical care. Sherrell, who works as a nurse herself, says she hadn’t realized how close to poverty her family was until this legal situation began.
“I thought we were middle class,” she said. “But I’ve come to understand we’re poor.”
And it’s poor people who pay the price for a broken justice system, she says. “If you have money, you’re not subject to this. But if you don’t have money, you’re in trouble, and you have no way to get free.”