TAMPA — While neighboring counties tout in-house solutions to managing low-level criminal offenders, Hillsborough County is poised to hand over its probation operations to a controversial California company with a history of legal disputes.
Sentinel Offender Services finished as the winning bidder in a heavily contested county procurement battle in May. The prize: A three-year, $7.2 million contract to monitor more than 2,000 misdemeanor defendants.
The agreement was scheduled for a vote at last Wednesday's county board meeting, but was postponed until July 15 after the Tampa Bay Times wrote about Sentinel's background.
If approved, Hillsborough County would enter a contentious national debate over the privatization of probation — a practice that has drawn criticism from human rights organizations and led to costly legal battles in other states.
Hillsborough County represents a large toehold into Florida for Sentinel's probation business, which until now has centered largely on Georgia. Sentinel and other for-profit probation companies are enticing options for local governments because the contract cost taxpayers nothing on paper; Sentinel gets its money by charging startup and monthly fees to the people on probation.
Critics, though, say there are hidden costs to the county, and for-profit companies often profit off poor people accused of minor offenses.
"It bothers me a lot," said Pat Frank, Hillsborough's Clerk of the Circuit Court. "I don't want to create a cycle where poverty puts people in jail."
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Sentinel declined to comment until the deal with the county is finalized, citing county procurement rules.
But the company's bid proposal provides some insight into its operations. Sentinel plans to open offices in Tampa and Plant City, for example, and the company hopes to hire probation officers from the Salvation Army, which will end probation services in Hillsborough this October after 40 years of operation.
Sentinel paints itself as a pioneer of the private-probation game and the first to charge offenders based on the type of probation needed.
"Many will propose it," Sentinel wrote. "We started it."
Sentinel charges probationers based on the services the company provides. Basic supervision costs $15 to enroll and $45 a month after. But if a judge requires a defendant to wear a tracking device, Sentinel charges up to $11 a day, or more than $300 a month.
John McMahon, divisional director of corrections for Salvation Army in Florida, said electronic monitoring is rarely used in Hillsborough for misdemeanor probation because most offenses are minor.
But electronic monitoring is a huge branch of Sentinel's national operations, and it pushes those services hard in its bid to Hillsborough.
"As the manufacturer of our own electronic monitoring and tracking equipment, we are able to provide immediate access to our equipment, and, should population numbers increase or program requirements change, we do not have to worry about equipment shortages," the proposal says.
As a more costly form of probation, some low-income offenders face hardship as fees for electronic monitoring mount on top of court fines.
If a probationer can't afford the user fees, Salvation Army's practice has been to sometimes "waive fees completely, sometimes we reduce fees," McMahon said. "Most times, we would not violate somebody for not paying."
Sentinel has operated differently.
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Perhaps because it is one of the largest companies of its kind, or because it was one of the first, Sentinel has become the face of abusive practices by the private probation industry.
Last year, Human Rights Watch released a report on the sector that singled out Sentinel for saddling probationers with fees totaling hundreds, even thousands of dollars. People who were initially unable to pay modest court fines found themselves indebted to a major corporation that could, and did, have them arrested when they fell behind.
Although debtors' prison is illegal in the United States, in Georgia, where Sentinel dominates the private probation market, there have been numerous stories of probationers picked up on warrants and jailed for owing the company money.
That's what happened to Nathan Mantooth, a 20-year-old who helped bring a class action lawsuit against Sentinel on behalf of 12 other probationers.
Ticketed in 2013 for improperly changing lanes, Mantooth paid the fine, completed a driving class, and moved on with his life. But months later, when he was pulled over for having an unbuckled seat belt, authorities discovered he had an outstanding warrant and took him to jail. According to his lawyer, John B. Long, Mantooth was wanted not by law enforcement, but by Sentinel, which claimed he owed them $103 in probation costs. He was released from jail only after his mother coughed up the money.
"I'm not some left-wing liberal — I'm a fairly conservative Republican lawyer — but I really have a problem when we outsource something that is traditionally governmental and we give these companies the power to arrest people for being poor," Long said.
Long's lawsuit reached Georgia's Supreme Court, which affirmed the right of private companies to supervise misdemeanor offenders but found some of Sentinel's practices illegal. In particular, the court said the company could not ask judges to extend probationers' sentences if they stopped reporting — a practice known as tolling that lengthened some sentences by years, allowing Sentinel to continue to collect fees.
And Sentinel's problems have followed it home, to Orange County, Calif., where the company got its start. In 2013, the county ended its contract after an audit found that Sentinel's GPS bracelets had stopped working for more than a dozen offenders.
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Several years ago, Pinellas County found itself in the same position Hillsborough is in today, but it chose a different path. Pinellas ended its contract for probation monitoring with Salvation Army in 2013 and turned it over to Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
At first, Gualtieri wasn't thrilled. The Salvation Army was running the program at a deficit and their operation was in "complete disarray," he said.
"Their main focus and concern was collecting the costs of probation," Gualtieri said. "It was all money driven. And not necessarily successfully getting these people off probation."
Today, Pinellas' misdemeanor probation monitoring unit is on the brink of making a profit for the county. It has 14 probation officers, an in-house drug testing lab and although it still operates on fees charged to probationers, it takes a considerably more relaxed approach to payment. Probationers are charged according to a sliding scale that weighs their ability to pay and prioritizes court costs and restitution payments over the sheriff department's fees.
Pasco County has operated its own probation services since 2010 and made a $400,000 profit for the county in the first year.
Hillsborough County, conversely, opened its probation contract to bidding. There were five submissions, including from Sentinel and two other large for-profit probation companies. An evaluation committee in May gave Sentinel the highest score, with local non-profit Bay Area Youth Services finishing a close second.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner said he was disappointed the county did not have an opportunity to compare public and private models. But he defended the procurement process and said he had faith in local judges and courts to prevent abuse.
"The bottom line is that the fees that are imposed and collected by any private company, that all has to be sanctioned and accepted by the courts," Beckner said. "So (Sentinel) can't go about collecting all these fees if the court hasn't authorized it."
Long, the Georgia lawyer, suggested Hillsborough not test that theory.
"I would hope we would not export what we've done in this state to the great state of Florida, but if we do it will not be in the best interest of your citizens," Long cautioned.
Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at firstname.lastname@example.org and Anna M. Phillips at email@example.com