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Hillsborough commissioners choose sheriff over for-profit company to handle probation

TAMPA — For-profit probation isn't coming to Hillsborough County.

Commissioners on Wednesday resoundingly rejected a $7.2 million, three-year agreement for California-based Sentinel Offender Services to monitor the county's misdemeanor probation population.

Instead, those duties will be handed to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, commissioners decided. The 6-0 vote was an uncommon acknowledgement from the Republican-controlled commission of a public agency's prowess over the private sector.

"For me, generally, less government is good government," Commissioner Victor Crist said. "But there are those unique situations where we have the resources that are underutilized that would be in the taxpayers' best interest for us to capitalize on them."

Commissioner Les Miller was not present at the meeting.

Wednesday's decision ended a long, contentious process that began last year when the Salvation Army told the county it would stop providing probation services in Hillsborough County after four decades.

Sentinel won the bid in May over four vendors. The Sheriff's Office had expressed interest in running those programs but backed out when the county decided to seek bids.

A vote to award Sentinel the contract was delayed in June after a Tampa Bay Times story highlighted the company's history in other states.

Sentinel is at the center of a national debate over whether governments should outsource probation programs.

A Human Rights Watch report last year accused Sentinel of running up excessive and debilitating fees on poor probationers. In Georgia, the state Supreme Court ruled some of Sentinel's practices were illegal.

Those revelations concerned commissioners. In July, they asked Sheriff David Gee's staff to come up with a plan to provide probation services, which includes monitoring and drug-testing misdemeanor offenders. Pinellas and Pasco counties hired their respective sheriffs to run these services in recent years.

Maj. Mike Perotti presented the sheriff's proposal Wednesday. Commissioners quickly rallied around it.

"There are many benefits for the citizens here because of the collaboration you already have with all the agencies in our community," Commissioner Sandy Murman said. "I think this offers a very practical solution."

While private companies pocket profits, Perotti said the Sheriff's Office can keep fees lower while reinvesting in rehabilitation. The Sheriff's Office will start as the county's vendor Oct. 1.