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TMCNet:  Court petition contends woman jailed because she can't pay fines

[January 03, 2013]

Court petition contends woman jailed because she can't pay fines

Jan 03, 2013 (The Augusta Chronicle - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- A woman jailed for nearly three months allegedly because she is too poor to pay court ordered fines and fees is being held illegally, a habeas corpus petition filed this week contends.

The petition filed in Richmond County Superior Court on Wednesday seeks the release of Virginia Cash, 32, as well as a declaration that privatizing probation services is unconstitutional.

Since 2004, Cash has been charged with numerous misdemeanor offenses and she is still on probation out of Richmond County State Court for driving on a suspended license, no proof of insurance and possession of marijuana in 2006. Cash's most recent arrest was on Oct. 16 based on a warrant obtained by Sentinel Offender Services. The warrant accused Cash of violating the terms of her 2006 probation sentence because she allegedly failed to complete or provide proof of complying with court-ordered conditions that included fines and fees, community service and drug testing.

On Oct. 18, Judge David D. Watkins ordered Cash to pay $535 or spend five months in jail. Watkins also remolded Cash's 2006 sentence to require electronic monitoring, which means an additional monthly probation charge and an $80 start-up fee.

According to the petition filed by attorney John Long on Cash's behalf, Cash doesn't have any money. The petition further alleges that it is unconstitutional to jail someone because he is poor. The petition cites case law that prohibits incarceration in lieu of payment unless a judge first determines the person has financial resources.

In effect, according to the petition, the court has shifted the financial burden onto local taxpayers.

So far, Cash's incarceration has cost county taxpayers $3,792.

Cash's petition contends Sentinel has an economic incentive to have judges extend probation sentences by ordering sentences to run consecutively and tolling sentences when probation violation warrants are obtained.

Although Cash was convicted of three misdemeanor charges that could have been punished by just a fine or a sentence of one year probation, six years after she pleaded guilty Cash still has nearly three more years of probation to serve, according to court records.

The petition also attacks the use of electronic monitoring and the judge's modification of Cash's 2006 sentence to include the monitoring. The petition alleges Georgia statutes regarding electronic monitoring only applies to the state's Department of Corrections probation officers, not private probation companies.

In the Oct. 18 hearing, the petition alleges, the judge didn't ask about Cash's ability to pay a start-up fee for the electronic monitoring, and that Cash will remain in jail because she is too poor to make the payment.

Cash's petition and five lawsuits filed on behalf of Sentinel clients are assigned to Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Craig. Sentinel has stopped providing probation services to the Superior Courts in Richmond and Columbia counties after the lawsuits were filed. Craig has ordered Sentinel to turn over its records for former and current probationers from those courts.

The Richmond County State Court has its own contract with Sentinel to provide probation services.

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