Editorial: Smart move on Hillsborough probation services

Published Aug. 21, 2015

Hillsborough County commissioners rightly rejected a for-profit company to handle misdemeanor probation services this week in favor of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. This is a wise move that turns over the services to a capable government agency that is well equipped to handle the job. The Sheriff's Office should be commended for assuming a duty that serves the best interests of probationers and taxpayers.

County commissioners voted 6-0 on Wednesday to select the Sheriff's Office to take over its probation service work. The vote was a rare show of confidence by the Republican-led commission in the capability of a public agency to perform a government function rather than turning to a private contractor. It also was a clear rejection of private vendor Sentinel Offender Services, which was the top-ranked bidder in May to take over the work. Sentinel's $7.2 million, three-year-deal came under scrutiny after the Tampa Bay Times' reported on complaints about the company's practices in other states. Sentinel, which is based in California, has been accused of charging expensive, excessive probation fees and jailing ex-offenders when they cannot afford to pay. The Georgia Supreme Court found that some of the company's practices were illegal.

Probation services in Hillsborough have operated efficiently and with little fanfare for nearly 40 years under the auspices of the Salvation Army. But last year, the charity announced plans to discontinue its work with probations, saying it wanted to focus on its core mission. The Sheriff's Office expressed an interest in running the program but demurred when the county opened the job up for bids.

In choosing a public agency to oversee the county's probation operation, commissioners bucked a bias toward privatization. Like Sentinel, the Sheriff's Office expects to run a profitable service, which will offset approximately $1.8 million in annual expenses. But it does not intend to do so at the peril of the poor, setting them up for re-criminalization by charging them exorbitant fees that they cannot pay. The Sheriff's Office also plans to save money by shifting to electronic records and to introduce job training and continuing education programs. Neighboring counties, including Pinellas and Pasco, where law enforcement agencies provide probation services have demonstrated the model can be profitable without being predatory.

By its nature as a government agency, the Sheriff's Office is subject to rules regarding transparency and accountability, important factors to ensure that all probation dealings remain above board. Unlike the Sentinel deal, this is a partnership the public can trust.