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Salvation Army declines Hillsborough County request to delay end of probation services

Published Aug. 1, 2015

TAMPA — The Salvation Army is holding firm with its plan to stop providing misdemeanor probation services in Hillsborough County on Sept. 30 — despite pleas from county officials to stay on longer.

County commissioners have not settled on a new provider and they likely won't before Aug. 19. To get a new provider up and running by Oct. 1 would give whoever is tapped for the job a tight launch window.

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill sent a letter July 24 asking if the Salvation Army "would entertain a request to extend misdemeanor probation services" through November. Merrill even offered to help pay for some of the costs so that the Salvation Army could stay on.

But James Hall, Tampa area commander for the Salvation Army, told the Tampa Bay Times that it is too late to change course.

"We're putting together our own transition," Hall said. "We've already started that process.

"We're willing to work with the next provider and come up with some creative options, but as of Oct. 1 it will be under the umbrella of whoever is picked."

It's unclear where that will leave Hillsborough and the roughly 3,000 misdemeanor offenders on probation after September.

Both entities in contention for the job — Sentinel Offender Services, a California-based private company, and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office — have provided time lines for full implementation that likely would go past Oct. 1.

Sentinel has said it would need eight weeks after an agreement is finalized to set up its probation services. In his letter to the Salvation Army, Merrill said the Sheriff's Office would need until the end of November "to ensure a successful transition."

Eric Johnson, Hillsborough's assistant county administrator, said that officials were aware of the Salvation Army's decision, and in an email to the Times said that they remain "confident that we'll arrive at a conclusion that serves the community both through the transition and beyond."

For four decades, the Salvation Army has overseen Hillsborough's probation services, which includes monitoring the whereabouts of low-level offenders. The charity, known for its thrift stores and bell-ringing volunteers who collect donations every holiday season, told the county more than a year ago that it planned to exit the criminal justice business on Sept. 30.

Finding a new vendor to oversee the misdemeanor probation program has proved to be a difficult process for the county.

On July 15, commissioners asked the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to make a last-minute proposal to take over probation services. A presentation from Sheriff David Gee's team is expected at the county board's Aug. 19 meeting.

The Sheriff's Office previously expressed interest in taking on those duties in January, but backed out when the county decided to put the contract out for bid.

Sentinel Offender Services came out ahead in the bidding process, beating out four other vendors. But a June vote to award the company a three-year, $7.2 million contract was delayed after the Times reported on Sentinel's controversial background operating in other states.

A Human Rights Watch report 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.

Both Sentinel and the Sheriff's Office have said they plan to hire many of the Salvation Army's probation officers. Hall said that was his hope, as well.

Hall also said the Salvation Army would "make our facilities available and access to records" and anything else the county and the next provider needs — short of actually monitoring probationers.

"We want to make sure we end well, make sure we have a secure handoff to the next vendor," Hall said. "It just means we won't continue the contract we're in.

"I don't know what that looks like. The county is working on that and they're putting together a plan as to how to make that happen."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com.

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