While Columbia County replaces Sentinel Offender Services with another private probation company, other municipalities are making a strong case for bringing probation services in-house
By: Eric Johnson
Filling the vacuum left by Sentinel Offender Service’s late December departure from Richmond and Columbia County Superior Court is CSRA Probation Services, an Evans-based company with over 13 years experience.
CSRA Probation Services was chosen by Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet and the contract was forwarded to the commissions of Richmond and Columbia counties.
Sentinel, who still services Richmond County State Court, decided to leave the Superior Court after it was found the company had been providing probation services without a valid contract since 2000.
According to Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson, the law gives the chief judge the ability to choose probation providers, and though he and his staff had started investigating the possibility of providing the service themselves, their findings were very preliminary.
“It was more fact finding for the commission side,” he says. “Those discussions hadn’t really gone much further than that.”
Once Overstreet made the recommendation, Johnson says, there was no need to continue the study. All that was left was commission approval.
Though giving the nod to another private probation provider remains consistent with the area’s method of handling probation, there are many communities in the state that have chosen to provide probation services themselves.
According to the County and Municipal Probation Advisory Council (CMPAC), the governing body that registers and regulates misdemeanor probation providers in Georgia, the state has 34 private entities and 54 governmental programs.
Athens-Clarke County has become a model for returning probation services in-house.
Like many municipalities across the state, it sought to use private contractors when the state decided to pass on the cost of misdemeanor probation to local jurisdictions in 2001. A 2007 audit of the private probation providers used by Athens-Clarke County revealed several deficiencies, including poor oversight, especially regarding the community service obligations of probationers and the completion of DUI school.
In 2008, Athens-Clarke County approved the establishment of an in-house probation office, which included P.O.S.T. certified probation officers and a significant increase in supervision.
“There were two major things that Athens-Clarke County wanted,” says Dale Allen, that jurisdiction’s chief probation officer. “They wanted accountability, including financial, and they wanted all our officers to be sworn officers.”
Allen, who actually teaches probation, calls his model of probation office a blend of the compliance model and the rehabilitative model.
“First of all, we’re compliance,” he says. “That’s what we demand — compliance with the conditions of your probation. Second, we’ll try to get you any help possible if you want that help.”
That kind of involvement is in sharp contrast with the service Sentinel continues to provide the State Court of Richmond County, where the probation officers are known to have little involvement with probationers beyond collecting money and filing paperwork.
Hall County, which is northeast of Atlanta, took back probation services last year, and while not every probation officer is P.O.S.T. certified, having at least some probation officers with arrest powers was important to them.
“Private probation officers don’t have any authority to make any arrests,” says Reggie Forrester, Hall County’s court administrator and the architect behind its probation office. “They don’t have the authority to enter a house or check after hours.”
A perfect example of the benefit of having officers with those powers occurred when a woman drove up from Savannah to report, Forrester says. She smelled strongly of marijuana, but before the Sheriff’s Department could get there, she was gone.
“That’s just one example of being able to arrest folks when they come in and we know they’re in violation,” he says. “If we have a suspicion of that, then we can go ahead and restrict that movement right then ourselves.”
Compliance with drug and alcohol conditions is an important part of their probation plan, so they moved the drug testing in-house as well.
“In trying to prepare a person to have a positive impact on society, I think we need to do certain things, and drug testing is one of those things,” he says. “If we let those folks just dance around the system and get away with not being properly tested and that sort of thing, then we’re not accomplishing much.”
Hall County took control of probation services in June 2012, and it immediately became clear that drug testing had not been a priority for the private contractor.
“The first week we operated, we arrested 60 people who failed drug tests,” Forrester says. “They reported for drug tests with urine contained in prescription bottles, urine contained in hand-tied condoms and other things. It’s obvious that they had probably been doing their specimens in a room where nobody was present.”
As word got out, these numbers diminished drastically.
“It doesn’t accomplish anything to work with a probationer and have him dirty on alcohol and drugs,” he says. “We can’t help that person and we will never accomplish a positive outcome when these things are present.”
Forrester seems to relish the rehabilitative aspects of his job.
“If we have a probationer who loses his job, then we have a job search unit and we’re going to try to help that person find a job,” he says. “Putting a person in jail is not going to help the situation.”
Beyond that, he’s also adjusted the hours of operation for reporting and for drug testing, allowing those on probation the opportunity to come in after normal business hours or on weekends so that they don’t have to lose part of their daily salary to come in or perhaps jeopardize their employment altogether.
Knowing the fear that many would have in the face of such a monumental change, Forrester conducted a three-year study in which he analyzed different probation models, talked to different jurisdictions and worked the numbers down to the penny before he brought the idea to his commission.
“How do you go to a county governing authority and ask them to provide $700,000-$750,000 for a brand new government department in the midst of an economic downturn,” he asks.
Fortunately, the county commission had just purchased a new administrative building, which freed up a building where Forrester could put all of the different courts in what he calls a one-stop shop, which allows drug testing, counseling, probation and the different courts to better communicate, something that could only help probationers.
Forrester expects his 13-member probation department to break even, and though the financial self-sufficiency is certainly important, he says that taking control just felt like the right thing to do.
“We had a pretty hard time, I guess, separating in our minds, both from an administrator’s standpoint and from a judicial standpoint, how a for-profit company could really have the operation and the interest of the probationers and their rehabilitation and reentry at heart,” Forrester says. “It’s just a philosophical difference that we had with that type of system.”
There were also nagging uncertainties about the financial arrangement between the probation company and the county.
“Understanding all the accounting was an issue for us, even though we could see the numbers,” Forrester says. “But seeing how all those funds were applied — we didn’t have access to a lot of that.”
Similar worries have been dogging Sentinel here in Richmond County that the for-profit company uses the judicial system as a means to collect its fees.
In a case set for trial January 25, Virginia Cash has been unlawfully incarcerated, her lawyers allege, because she can’t pay the $80 start up fee for electronic monitoring that was added to her 2006 sentence. The case argues that such a modification is not only illegal, but it serves no purpose other than to add to Sentinel’s bottom line.
Again, this goes to the philosophical issues surrounding the motivations of a for-profit company.
In Athens-Clarke County, the chief probation officer has the authority to waive supervision fees or ask the judge to convert fines to community service rather than have probationers jailed for probation violations, as is often the case here.
In Richmond County, each day in jail costs taxpayers approximately $48 and it accomplishes little beyond penalizing poor people for not being able to make payments to a private company.
“We know that we have probationers go to jail from time to time for whatever reason, and we know that there’s a cost involved with the jail,” Forrester says. “However, we do understand that jail is not the answer to the issues. Jail should be the final encouragement to comply with your probation after we’ve tried everything else.”
The same has not been said locally about Sentinel, which has a reputation for locking probationers up for not paying fines or fees. Attorney Jack Long has a slew of cases before Judge Danny Craig regarding Sentinel’s for-profit policies, and a look at the paperwork of Sentinel probationers seems to confirm his allegations.
Receipts of a former probationer obtained by the Metro Spirit show that over the course of the probation period, the probationer’s fees to Sentinel totaled $1,680, while her fines totaled $1,200.
In print, it appears to be an absolute — the Sentinel fee looks as final as the fine amount. Nowhere does it indicate that if the fines are paid off early, the fees cease to be charged.
Another thing the receipts show is that, in violation of the contract with the State Court of Richmond County, Sentinel got its fee paid at the expense of the fines.
On one occasion, Sentinel’s $35 came in and only $6 was applied to fines. On another, Sentinel got its $35, while just $16 went toward fines.
According to the contract, that money should be split 50/50.
Without calling out Sentinel by name, CSRA Probation Services President Mike Popplewell insists his company will handle things differently.
“Our company philosophy has always been that we’re here to try to help people who are on probation,” he says. “We have found that the better we do, the better they do and everybody’s happy. You have a much better success rate with folks when you try to help them.”
Popplewell worked in state probation for the Department of Corrections for almost 18 years before getting in on the ground floor when the law opened up the state for private misdemeanor probation companies. He started with one office serving one court and he now has 10 offices serving 53 or 54 separate courts, including the Columbia County Magistrate Court, the cities of Harlem, Hephzibah and Blythe, among others.
“Our company is kind of low profile,” he says, “I think one of the things that really differentiates my company from a lot of companies in the state is that we really work to try to get people off of probation as quickly as possible and as easily as possible.”
That said, he acknowledges that as a for-profit company he does have to keep an eye on the bottom line.
“Obviously, as a private business you have to collect enough money to pay the bills or you won’t be in business very long,” he says. “But at the same time, my philosophy is that if you do a good job with the people you’re working with and they’re successful in their probation, then the revenue side is going to take care of itself.”
Unlike Sentinel, a California-based company that has little interaction or oversight with their probationers, Popplewell insists his commitment to get the probationers through the process involves several different elements celebrated by the government-run programs.
“It’s not unusual for us to be in court and if somebody has a relatively small fine that they think they can’t pay, we’ll sit down with them and say, look — if you can make some arrangements and knock this thing out today or by the end of the week, we won’t charge you a supervision fee,” he says. “We do recognize that there are some situations where a person doesn’t really need to be on probation, and we don’t have a problem trying to facilitate them not to be on probation, because, frankly, there’s plenty of business. It’s not like there’s a shortage of people going through court.” You Might Also Like: