2 Investigates: Georgians thrown in jail for owing money

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A $2 can of Icehouse beer cost Georgia taxpayers $3,000.

Homeless veteran Tom Barrett stole the beer from a convenience store in April 2012.

"I just wanted a beer, and I'm not saying I'm proud of it, I'm ashamed of it really," said Barrett.

Barrett was fined $200, but he didn't have the money to pay the fine all at once. He was ordered onto probation, supervised by Sentinal Offender Services.

But there was a catch: A monitoring "startup fee." Barrett didn't have money so he spent two months behind bars.

Taxpayers were stuck with $3,000 to house Barrett in jail.

"You're looking at an average of $50 per day in the state," said attorney Jack Long, who is representing Barrett in a civil lawsuit against Sentinel.

Barrett finally got out of jail, when his AA sponsor paid the startup fee. But Barrett still had trouble keeping up with the ongoing probation fees.

"The only income I had was selling my plasma," said Barrett. He said Sentinel told him he could be thrown in jail again.

"They said, once you get in arrears of $500, you're going to be locked up," Barrett told Channel 2 Action News.

Kathleen Hucks, who has epilepsy, was supposed to finish probation in 2008. That's when she paid off her fees and had a zero balance. She was stunned to find out four years later that there was a warrant for her arrest.

The reason: More probation fees piled on after her probation was supposed to have ended. She spent 20 days in jail, and then she saw a judge.

"Judge Craig looked at me and said, ma'am, you spent 20 days too long. Go home," Hucks said.

About 80% of misdemeanor probationers are supervised by private, for profit companies.

Emory Professor Michael Owens, who specializes in politics and the penal system, says those companies hold too much influence over the decisions of judges.

"What these private probations do is they lobby. They lobby state legislatures and they also lobby judges," said Owens.

Gov. Nathan Deal just signed into law a bill that will cap fees private probation companies can charge, but attorney Jack Long says the reforms fall short.

"This problem won't be fixed until Georgia abolishes private probation," Long said.

Channel 2 tried to reach Sentinel Offender Services for a comment, but no one from the company called us back.

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