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When the Salvation Army is your probation officer

Second of two parts

TAMPA — In a crowded courtroom, a woman stands before Hillsborough County Judge James Dominguez. He plucks a file from a stack perched precariously at his elbow and looks inside.

DUI, the judge says. Raise your right hand. One year of probation, he says.

She smiles. She even thanks him. Then, like thousands of others put on misdemeanor probation every year, she is told what to do to complete her sentence and make her case go away, including paying a litany of fees. "See the probation officer," the judge says.

What he does not say is, "See the Salvation Army probation officer," as in, the folks best known for red kettles at Christmas. As in, the megachurch most people think of as a grass roots charity.

But around here, it's a given.

In an unusual mix of religion and justice, of church and court, the Salvation Army has for decades had a lock on handling misdemeanor probation in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, with the blessing of judges on both sides of the bay.

Hillsborough probationers ponied up $3.2 million in supervision fees to the Salvation Army last year. Pinellas probationers paid $2.4 million. For more than two decades, the tax-exempt Salvation Army has kept those contracts without private companies getting a chance to offer competing bids — though some have tried.

That's not the case elsewhere in Florida.

In one county, a judge did not like the mix of church and state, and so the county went with a private company instead. Critics point out that the Salvation Army pays itself first — even before victims get a shot at restitution.

Today most counties select from eager bidders, hire private providers or handle probation in-house. Pasco County made a profit of more than $400,000 last year running its own probation office, money that went back into county coffers.

"We serve at their pleasure," said Maj. Larry Broome, general secretary of the Salvation Army's Florida Divisional Headquarters. "They can (put it out for bid) if they feel it needs to be challenged."

So how did an organization best known for bell-ringers, donated clothes and a hand up for the hurting — and more recently, for having a powerful local politician on its payroll — end up with no-bid, tax-free government contracts to supervise people on probation?

The story begins in mid '70s Florida, long before the term "faith-based initiative" came into vogue.

• • •

For decades, people sentenced to probation for misdemeanors or felonies reported to state probation officers who made sure they paid fines, took classes, worked off community service hours and did whatever else judges ordered.

But in a cost-cutting move more than three decades ago, the state got out of less-serious misdemeanor probation, leaving individual counties to handle people sentenced for crimes such as petty theft or marijuana possession. In 1975, the Legislature passed the Salvation Army Act, which allowed the church to run probation programs for counties.

Sound odd? It shouldn't, the Salvation Army says. William Booth, the Englishman who founded the organization in the 1800s, long ago established Prison Gate Brigades.

"He would have Salvationists at the prison gate as somebody was being released, trying to get them to get their life back into a right track," said Maj. Broome. "That was the beginnings of our corrections involvement."

Handling misdemeanor probation was "a next level," he said.

Business boomed. By 1979, judges in nearly half of Florida's 67 counties were sending probationers to the Salvation Army.

Jim Norman, who would go on to become an influential Hills­borough County commissioner and more recently, a controversial state senator, started with the Salvation Army in Jacksonville in 1979, working for the man who helped create the first probation program. Over the years and across the state, Norman would lobby public officials on behalf of Salvation Army corrections programs, including probation, once telling a reporter, "The judges are ecstatic over the programs." (See related story, 4A)

Not all judges, however.

When counties were deciding how to handle misdemeanor probation, then-Pasco County Judge Dan Rasmussen did not like the idea of sending defendants to the Salvation Army.

"I don't think it's appropriate for public funds to be financing a church, especially when they do not have any accountability to the public," he said in a recent interview. "I said, 'There has to be an alternative.' " Pasco originally hired a private company. And for the last 18 years, the county has run its own probation office.

• • •

In a squat building north of downtown Tampa, one with signature red Salvation Army signs and a daily throng of homeless people out front, probationers sit in a large reception room clutching court papers and waiting to be called.

A woman behind the front desk answers questions: No, you can't serve your Pensacola probation here. No, we can't drop a judge's order that you have no contact with your girlfriend.

Here to see your probation officer? Please sign your name and have a seat.

On a wall behind her, a massive metal plaque bears the fierce countenance of Booth, the Salvation Army founder, and a quote about men in and out of prison, women weeping and children gone hungry. It ends with this: While there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I'll fight, I'll fight to the very end!

This misdemeanor probation office includes 50 Salvation Army employees, about half of them probation officers who start at $26,000 a year and supervise 165 to 185 probationers each. In Pinellas, the average caseload is 195.

The officers — called probation "counselors" — don't visit probationers to check up on them. Instead, probationers report in monthly to pay fines, turn in time sheets and show proof they have met other requirements, such as completing DUI classes. The Salvation Army keeps the $55-a-month cost-of-supervision fee and sends other payments, such as court costs, to the county clerk's office.

Numbers provided by the Salvation Army indicate its Hills­borough probation program netted only $65,534 in 2009-10 after expenses. Complicating that accounting, however, is how the organization essentially pays itself.

The Salvation Army, for instance, owns the building that houses its Tampa probation department, but the probation department pays $48,000 yearly rent to the Salvation Army Tampa area command. The local corrections program, which includes probation, gives 12 percent to the Salvation Army state headquarters in exchange for administrative services such as human relations.

Statewide, Salvation Army probation programs have dwindled to 11 counties. Sometimes, officials did not like the job the Salvation Army was doing. Sometimes, private companies offered better deals.

After more than 20 years in Bay County, the Salvation Army "didn't seem all that motivated," former Court Clerk Harold Bazzel recalled recently. "We selected another vendor, and our collections shot through the roof."

In Hillsborough and Pinellas, however, probation programs have been regularly renewed every few years by the respective county commissions — both on the Salvation Army's reputation as a good-works organization, and more important, on the recommendations of judges who have great sway in the decision.

"Salvation Army's been very efficient, very responsive," says Hillsborough's Judge Dominguez.

"They get things done," said Pinellas County Judge Henry Andringa.

County officials don't have a clear explanation for why local contracts have never been put out for bid.

Judges are satisfied, they say. The contract involves no county funding. And it's not a new contract, just a regularly renewed one.

Longtime Hillsborough Court Administrator Mike Bridenback said a couple of private providers have made inquiries over the years. "I guess that's because there's some money connected with it," he said. But the Salvation Army kept the contract.

"It's the old if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it model," he said.

• • •

There have been critics, however.

Why, some ask, do Hillsborough probationers pay the Salvation Army before they pay other fines — in particular, before even restitution is paid to the victims of the crimes?

The order in which fees were collected was one concern in Bay County: "They were getting their money off the top before we got any," recalled Bazzel, the former clerk.

A Hillsborough judge complained about the arrangement as far back as 1987, saying the Salvation Army "took care of themselves first."

Hillsborough's current contract specifies the Salvation Army gets its $55 monthly cost-of-supervision fee before all other costs are paid by a probationer, except a one-time $12 fee to the court clerk. That can make it harder for a defendant to pay down other amounts owed and ultimately get off probation.

Walt Bucklin, head of the Hillsborough probation office, says that's the reality of a program run on fees.

"It's operational funds," he said. "You can't perform our services unless you can staff the departments." In a theft of electricity case, he says, restitution goes to Tampa Electric, and he would rather pay employees and keep the system running.

Also, Bucklin says, supervision payments can be waived or reduced when someone genuinely can't pay.

Others do it differently. At Judicial Correction Services, a private company with probation contracts in seven Florida counties, it's "restitution first," says chief operating officer Dennis Moon. "They get paid in full before a dime goes to us."

Another criticism: Probationers are referred to court-ordered classes or programs that cost them money — programs provided by the Salvation Army itself. Around the state, the organization runs classes in Anger Management ($45), Personal Money Management ($25) and Alternatives To Violence Through Education ($80).

In Pinellas, some probationers pay the Salvation Army $75 for a Shoplifters Anonymous program. Others pay for classes on victim impact or driving with a suspended license.

Not in Hillsborough, however. Bucklin says there are plenty of expert outside providers for DUI school and other services. "It avoids any potential conflict for self-referral," he says.

Then there's the matter of the Salvation Army, a church, running a government function.

The Salvation Army is clear about its religious roots: "Its message is based on the Bible," its mission statement says. "Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination."

"In the corrections department, I think we're very careful not to cross that line," Maj. Broome said. "We do not require any kind of participation in spiritual activities or anything of that nature."

A chaplain is available to probationers in Pinellas, he said, but seeing him isn't required.

• • •

Pasco and Pinellas counties share a public defender and state attorney. Your probation officer, however, depends on which side of the county line you're on.

In Pinellas, it's the Salvation Army. Pasco started its own county program in 1993.

"We thought we could do it more efficiently and more economically," said longtime Pasco County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand.

Last year, Pasco collected $1.07 million in probationers' monthly supervision fees. The program cost $647,625 to run. That left $423,553 to put back in the county's general fund.

"It's self-sufficient, and it's been working fine for us," Hildebrand said. "We make a little bit of money on it. We're a very conservative, frugal county."

Not that a county-run department would work everywhere, or that every government wants the headache of running its own probation office. But that successful money-generating idea in their own back yard caught the interest of both the Pinellas-Pasco state attorney and public defender. They estimate Pinellas could make $1 million a year after startup costs.

"It's not going to put you over the top as far as budget deficit, but there's some money there to be had," said State Attorney Bernie McCabe. He says he sees little difference in the effectiveness of Salvation Army vs. county-run probation programs.

If Pinellas ran its own office, Public Defender Bob Dillinger said, money could go back into the system to make it run more efficiently.

Say a defendant charged with domestic violence couldn't afford anger management classes he was ordered to take. By law, he can't have his probation violated just because he can't pay.

But the county could put the classes on for free and require him to go, Dillinger said.

"Bernie (McCabe) and I have kicked it around for years," Dillinger said, "but it never got traction."

McCabe says he has brought the idea up to county administrators over the years.

"Any time in the past that conversation started to be had, the Salvation Army would go to the judges, and the judges would say they're very happy with the Salvation Army," McCabe said. "And that was that."

When the Salvation Army is your probation officer 03/20/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 21, 2011 10:11am]
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