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Editorial: Sheriff steps up on probation mess

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has proven to be a decisive leader in addressing mismanagement and in his willingness to make changes and take on additional responsibilities. That was the case this month when Gualtieri moved to end a 30-year agreement with the Salvation Army to oversee thousands of misdemeanor probationers. The annual $2 million Salvation Army program had become a mess of bureaucratic inertia, including the questionable funneling of $250,000 in probationer fees to the agency's national headquarters. Moving the probation program directly under the supervision of the sheriff's department should result in the restoration of long-overdue transparency, accountability and efficiency.

The county's misdemeanor probation program should pay for itself by collecting a $55 monthly fee from participants. For the past three decades the Salvation Army had overseen the program with apparently little effort to improve its management in serving the needs of its roughly 3,000 clients. Sheriff's auditors also discovered the nonprofit Salvation Army had redirected 12 percent of the fees collected from probationers, about $250,000, to its national headquarters, creating a $37,000 deficit in the program in 2012. That is misusing money that was supposed to be spent on an important public purpose.

Gualtieri intends to make some immediate, reasonable changes to bring the misdemeanor probation program into the 21st century by computerizing the Salvation Army's unreliable paper-only system of logging fee payments. He also will make probation officers available on Saturdays to better accommodate probationers' work schedules. And the sheriff will abandon the Salvation Army's one-size-fits-all approach by adjusting the degree of community control required of a probationer based on the nature of each probationer's offense and criminal history. Gualtieri also plans to make greater use of electronic monitoring of offenders. Finally, he will make probationers eligible for life skills and job training programs. Budgeted at $1.5 million, Gualtieri has promised to keep the entire program at least cost-neutral.

It was past time for a change. Gualtieri's sensible decision underscores that the program should be about returning offenders who made a mistake to being useful members of society, not providing a perpetual kettle of funding to a national nonprofit.

Correction: The Salvation Army, which lost oversight of Pinellas County's misdemeanor probation program this month, sent 12 percent of probation fees to its state, not national, headquarters. The Salvation Army also used a computer system to document payments from probationers but could not access the system in the courtroom that handles probation cases. The nonprofit used a subcontractor for electronic monitoring of probationers when ordered by a judge. An editorial Sept. 18 was incorrect or unclear on these points.

Editorial: Sheriff steps up on probation mess 09/17/13 [Last modified: Thursday, September 26, 2013 12:55pm]
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