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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2014

Pinellas sheriff takes over oversight of low-level probationers

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LARGO — Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri this month reluctantly began monitoring minor criminals while they are on probation, a job Pinellas County had entrusted to the Salvation Army for 36 years with little to no financial oversight.

What the sheriff discovered, while researching the operation he took over as of Sept. 1, was that the local Salvation Army was giving its national headquarters 12 percent of the money it took from the fees probationers were paying to be supervised by the nonprofit organization.

In 2012, the Salvation Army’s intake from the probationers was roughly $2.16 million; of that, $259,000 went to the national Salvation Army, according to figures provided by the sheriff’s office. In the end, the local misdemeanor probation operation was in the hole to the tune of $37,000 for the year.

The same scenario played out in 2011. The local Salvation Army took in $2.2 million and paid the national Salvation Army $264,000. Its deficit was $70,000 that year, the sheriff’s office said.

At the same time, the oversight of people on probation for misdemeanor offenses was lax, Gualtieri said. For instance, there was no electronic monitoring for any of the organization’s probationers, and probationers could check in with their probation officers only during weekdays, possibly creating a conflict with people’s work schedules.

Instead of focusing on the people in its charge, the Salvation Army seemed more interested in collecting their $55 monthly probation fees, the sheriff said.

“It seems to us the Salvation Army’s focus was on collecting the money,” Gualtieri said.

John McMahon, the divisional director of correctional services for the Salvation Army, balked at Gualtieri’s characterization of the local Salvation Army’s mission and the money the sheriff says was being passed along to the national organization.

“I don’t know where he’s getting that information from,” McMahon said.

As for Gualtieri’s criticisms of the operation, McMahon said, “I guess that’s his opinion.”

“Our goal has always been to assist the offenders and not just collecting money for the sake of collecting money,” McMahon said.

Gualtieri said he obtained the financial figures from the Salvation Army itself, as part of an effort to see if he could do the job on a cost-neutral basis, meaning the supervision of probationers wouldn’t cost his agency anything.

The regional Salvation Army office continues to oversee probationers who had been involved in minor crimes in nine other counties, including Hillsborough.

Since 1977, the Salvation Army had been overseeing people in Pinellas County who are on probation for misdemeanors, such as drunken driving, petty theft or simple battery. The Florida Department of Corrections handles probationers convicted of felonies, such as rape, aggravated battery, second-degree murder or armed robbery.

The Salvation Army collected $55 for each probationer it oversaw, an amount set by the court system.

With roughly 3,000 defendants on misdemeanor probation at any given time, that translates into about $2 million a year, assuming everyone is making the monthly payments.

The Salvation Army had to “do its job based on the money it got,” said Tim Burns, the director of Pinellas County’s Justice and Consumer Services division, which falls under the newly-formed Health and Community Services division.

“There was no money attached to that agreement,” Burns said. “It was a zero-cost contract.”

It was also a contract that did not go out to bid.

Gualtieri said the idea of his office taking over misdemeanor probation surfaced at a meeting that included top officials of the local criminal justice system, including Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe; Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger; J. Thomas McGrady, the chief judge of the Sixth Judicial Circuit; and Burns.

“There was some concern that this contract had never been bid out, and the Salvation Army had it for a significant amount of time without a bid or competition,” Gualtieri said.

The group discussed putting the contract out to bid, where even for-profit organizations could vie for the job. There was concern about doing that, though; and, ultimately, Gualtieri agreed to take on the responsibility, provided he didn’t have to compete for it and the work didn’t end up costing his agency.

“This isn’t something I asked for,” Gualtieri said. “This isn’t something, frankly, I wanted to do.”

Since his agency won’t be diverting a quarter-million dollars a year to the national Salvation Army — or paying rent for a building the Salvation Army was using on 34th Street — it already has $400,000 more money than the Salvation Army had to put toward services for the probationers, the sheriff said.

Services for the misdemeanor probationers will be provided at the criminal court complex on 49th Street and at a nearby building where there is a video visitation center for Pinellas County Jail inmates.

Gualtieri had to hire a staff of 28 people, some of whom used to work for the Salvation Army. Other former Salvation Army employees were rejected, and still others declined to apply for the posts after learning they would have to undergo a polygraph, the sheriff said.

Gualtieri said his staff has already encountered defendants on misdemeanor probation at earlier stages in the criminal justice system, so it sort of makes sense they would supervise them later on.

For instance, if someone is arrested on a charge of auto burglary but can’t make bail, he may be released on his own recognizance as part of a pretrial program run by the sheriff. Gualtieri’s office sometimes monitors such defendants through electronic monitoring or enforces curfews.

Then, when the defendant, instead of going to trial on the auto burglary charge, pleads guilty to misdemeanor trespass and is sentenced to probation, he falls again under the supervision of the sheriff’s office, which is already familiar with him.

“Now we already have them,” he said.

One of his focuses will be to use programs, some of which already exist at his agency, such as life skills classes for Pinellas County Jail inmates, to guide misdemeanor probationers toward a law-abiding productive life. Intervention programs for abusers and job training will also be available.

“That’s a benefit of government,” Gualtieri said. “Our focus is not on money. Our focus is we’re doing everything we can to make sure they don’t reoffend.”

sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-6504

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