Say NO to For-Profit Probation in Hillsborough County

Right now probation services in Hillsborough County are run by the Salvation Army, a non-profit. But that contract is about to expire. A new company, Sentinelis poised to take over as the county’s probation services provider as long as the $7.2 million contract is approved by the county board. The vote is scheduled for July 15th.

Sentinel makes its money by collecting fees from the people it supervises. Basic supervision costs about $45 per month, after a $15 enrollment fee. But where the costs ramp up is when people are ordered to received electronic monitoring. Such monitoring can cost up to $11 per day.

An aside about electronic monitoring: these monitors are not just for location. Many times in second or third-time DUI offenses a defendant can be ordered to wear an electronic alcohol monitor that measures alcohol consumption by two electrodes on the skin.

Not surprisingly, Sentinel is known for pushing its electronic monitoring programs. Because that program is in-house they can make more of a profit if the person on probation has to pay them for monitoring.

How would a for-profit probation system work in Florida?

Right now, standard misdemeanor probation conditions are set either by the state legislature or by the judge’s own initiative. If Sentinel does begin to operate in Hillsborough County I wouldn’t be surprised to see them lobbying for changes to the probation laws for mandatory electronic monitoring in more cases.

If a person on probation fails to pay the monthly fees, the probation officer can issue what’s called a “technical violation,” and ask the court for a warrant for their arrest. The person is then arrested in order to ensure they appear in court to address the violation. Usually a technical violation doesn’t result in a jail sentence as long as there’s a good reason for it.

Many times a judge will simply terminate the probation of a person who only violated their probation for failure to pay the monthly fee, as long as they have completed the other probation conditions. Otherwise the judge will just reinstate the probation term.

Sentinel has a different approach. In Georgia, the company has already lost one class-action lawsuit for illegally holding people on probation even after the probation term has expired.

Here’s the pattern:

  1. A person is placed on probation for, let’s say, a year.
  2. Sentinel is assigned to monitor the person during probation, and make sure they complete all the terms. Those terms can include things like a curfew, drug tests, or restrictions on where the person can and can’t go. The conditions always include some type of monthly payment to Sentinel.
  3. The person fails to make their monthly payment to Sentinel.
  4. Sentinel then goes to get an arrest warrant based on that person’s “technical violation” of the terms of their probation.
  5. Sentinel demands payment in exchange for withdrawing the warrant. If the person doesn’t pay, they are arrested and booked into jail.
  6. Sentinel gets an order from the judge that the probation term is suspended until the person is actually hauled into court to face the allegation that they violated their probation.
  7. Sentinel, who would be in charge of scheduling that hearing, doesn’t schedule it so the person stays in jail.

From another news story out of Georgia where Sentinel operates:

Although Walker’s sentence expired Feb. 9, 2013, in September 2014, Walker’s Sentinel probation officer obtained a warrant for her arrest and the extension of her sentence, and she informed Walker she had to pay $195, according to the lawsuit.

In that story, the woman actually ended up paying Sentinel what they claimed she owed in order to get them to cancel the warrant for her arrest. But the warrant wasn’t ever removed. Instead, she was arrested later that year after a traffic stop and held in jail for over a day because of the “mix-up.”

What’s the big problem with for-profit probation systems?

The problem with letting a for-profit company supervise probation services is their nature: they’re for-profit. Profit is their main goal, and profit is their board’s main obligation to their shareholders. There’s nothing inherently wrong with for-profit businesses.

There is something wrong with giving a company with the profit motivation the power to arrest (by getting a warrant from the judge) people for not paying them. Sentinel’s Georgia track record isn’t good.

In fact, it shows their propensity to use the court system to their advantage, and squeeze every drop of profit they can out of the people they supervise.