TAMPA — The decision to bring on the Sheriff's Office to monitor low-level criminal offenders in Hillsborough County appears to be paying off.
Collections are up. Expenses are under budget. In some cases, offenders pay less for what many say is better service.
"We're quite pleased," said Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank, who advocated the transfer of misdemeanor probation services to the sheriff after a decadeslong arrangement with the Salvation Army ended. "I haven't heard any negative reactions."
The county nearly went down a more controversial path.
Commissioners were close to bringing in Sentinel Offender Services, a for-profit company, to take over those probation services. The company promised to monitor Hillsborough's misdemeanor population at no expense to taxpayers, instead passing on the costs — about $2.4 million a year — to the county's 3,000 offenders.
Sentinel, though was accused of running up bills on the offenders it was monitoring in Georgia, the Tampa Bay Times reported last year. The expense of being on probation became so high for some low-income participants that they couldn't afford to pay the fines and restitution required to complete their sentences.
The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that some of Sentinel's practices were illegal.
After the Times' stories ran, Hillsborough commissioners instead asked Sheriff David Gee to take over probation services. He agreed.
Like Sentinel, the Sheriff's Office charges the people it monitors for the cost of its services, which range from supervision to rehabilitation classes.
But unlike Sentinel, the Sheriff's Office said its goal is to operate a cost-neutral program. It brought in about $200,000 more than it spent in its first year, but that's largely because it spent $765,000 less than budgeted.
Pinellas and Pasco counties outsourced their misdemeanor probation services to their sheriff's offices several years ago.
In Hillsborough, the agency hopes to eventually pass savings onto the probationers, many who live below the poverty line, so they can focus on paying court penalties. For some DUI offenders, fees already are lower.
"When you have a third party managing this, the reality is you're going to have a profit margin built in, otherwise they wouldn't be in the business," sheriff's Maj. Mike Perotti said. "We don't have a profit margin, so the only goal is being as efficient as possible and ensuring the court-ordered payments or mandates are followed up appropriately."
The sheriff's and clerk's offices have collaborated to share space in the Hillsborough County Courthouse. Previously, probationers had to travel to a Salvation Army office on N Florida Avenue after leaving court downtown. Now they can go to a first-floor kiosk to enroll and pay any court fines right after a judge's sentencing.
It's a small change that has made a big difference. The collection rate jumped from about 9 percent in the final three months of 2014 to 28 percent in the first three months of this year.
"There's more success in meeting conditions of probation and the collection of money seems to be moving in a positive direction," said Julianne Holt, the Hillsborough County public defender. "There's a lot of effort from the Sheriff's Office in assisting them maneuver through the system."
Sitting in a Hillsborough County jail last Christmas Eve after a DUI arrest, Chris Capote worried his mistake would not only follow him in life but prevent him from working on the business he recently started with his father. Capote, 26, heard "horror stories" about probation and how disruptive it could be to daily life.
Instead, he credits the system for getting him headed in the right direction.
"Obviously, I wouldn't recommend this, but they helped me to learn from this and grow," Capote said. "People think it's all a way to make money. That hasn't been my experience.
"If you can't take what you did wrong and learn from it, you'll fall back in the same pit."
As he prepares for year two, Perotti would like to give judges the option to use GPS devices to monitor certain misdemeanor offenders. It would be the first time electronic monitoring would be used with this population.
But that was a controversial piece of Sentinel's pitch to the county last year. GPS monitoring makes up the lion's share of Sentinel's national business and company officials said it would be easy for them to bring it to misdemeanor offenders. Probationers are charged monthly to wear the monitoring equipment.
In fact, the Sheriff's Office already contracts with Sentinel to provide GPS monitoring for more dangerous offenders, and the company will be paid to do the same for the misdemeanor population, should judges require it.
Frank and Holt said they aren't comfortable with that change.
"Frankly, I don't think it's cost-effective for the clients I deal with," Holt said. "I would be extremely hesitant to go down a road of GPS monitoring at this point."
Perotti, though, assured it would be used sparingly, such as with people who are flight risks or DUI offenders who may get behind the wheel again. Judges, and not Sentinel, will control how long an individual remains monitored, reducing the risk of running the clock to make money.
Like everything else so far, sheriff's officials say they will work out the kinks as they go along.
"It's been every bit as challenging as we thought it would be," Perotti said. "Right now we've had a year of transition and whirlwind and I'm looking forward to this next year. We didn't want to pass expenses to taxpayers and we accomplished that goal."
Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.