Set Up To Fail: Impact of private probation on the poor

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Utah is one of a handful of states that allows private probation companies to control critical aspects of a person’s life. They decide what low-level offenders need to do and pay to get out of the criminal justice system.  

Probation is meant to give people a chance to avoid doing jail time by completing certain classes, treatment, and testing. However, with private agencies directly profiting off these requirements many people believe they’re taking advantage of the system.  

ABC4’s Jillian Smukler spoke with several probationers who have been through private providers in Utah about their experiences. They asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation and privacy concerns.  

In Utah, thousands of people are currently on probation. With more low-level offenders being sent to private probation providers, concerns are growing over whether they have their best interest in mind.  

“It’s how many classes can we get you in? What requirements can we put on you to make it difficult to get anything else done, because you know if you don’t get it right…you do it again and it’s another 200 dollars the next month,” said one probationer who went through a private provider in Salt Lake County.  

“I remember when I was doing my first appointment with them, I was paying and a lady was next to me and she said in front of them ‘this place is a joke’ and ‘they’re going to keep you here as long as possible,’ another probationer who went through another private provider in Salt Lake County said.  

Defense Attorney and former Prosecutor Greg Skordas said he believes private probation agencies have a place in our criminal justice system. However, he said there is an inherent conflict for an agency to do both the assessment and treatment.  

“We all know, those of us that work in the system, that there are certain agencies that have a certain reputation…whether it’s deserved or not…that they just continue to keep people in their system. It’s a revolving door,” Skordas said.  

That system Skordas references was born out of necessity. Back in 1990, lawmakers passed the Private Probation Provider Licensing Act to ease the strain on the overwhelmed state-run agency.  

Fast forward 31 years later, there are 90 active private probation providers in Utah with 26 of them in Salt Lake County.  

“Historically we’ve said that is something that shouldn’t happen, and co-mingling creates that conflict,” Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said.  

Gill believes assessments and treatments need to be done by separate agencies so the financial motivation to keep offenders longer isn’t there.  

“We want to make sure that people are getting direct proportionate help without having systemically being coerced into a longer course of treatment or the wrong course of treatment because they’ve been convicted of a crime or have been ordered into that,” Gill said.  

ABC4 spoke with the owner of one of the 26 private probation agencies in Salt Lake County who disagrees.  

“He’s saying there’s a problem with an agency like mine because there may be an inherent risk to the client because it’s in the same agency. Yet I do not make treatment recommendations. I may give input to my counselors when they say ‘hey, I just saw a client of yours that you see for probation, they say they’ve never had a criminal charge, they say they’ve never done education and they say there’s not an issue.’ And I say ‘whoa…are you serious?’” 

Private probation providers can charge offenders for classes, drug and alcohol tests and whatever else they decide is needed for treatment. If the person is unable to pay, the probation officer could issue a violation and the offender could end up in jail.  

“I remember hearing from people saying that they’ve been threatened, coerced, saying ‘if you don’t pay up, I’m going to send a negative report,’” Gill said.  

However, one private probation provider owner claims the financial obligation helps hold offenders accountable.  

“If they know they have to pay me 30 dollars and they know I will do case management services with them for that 30-dollar appointment, they come prepared asking for help.” 

While these for-profit agencies rely on fees to bring in revenue, other probation services funded by the county don’t have that problem.  

“We provide waivers. So, we have a monthly probation fee of $15 if somebody can’t afford to pay that, we work with them. We can reduce it to $10… $5…or zero. So, it really depends on the individual and where they’re at,” Division Director of Salt Lake County Criminal Justice Services Kele Griffone said.  

When a person is court ordered to probation, some of them get to choose their provider while others do not.  

“It’s a catch-22 because in some jurisdictions you don’t have the infrastructure of support that you need from a government-based model, so you have private vendors that do set up a shop in that,” Gill said. 

“In larger counties, state and county services are overwhelmed. They don’t have the resources to take every misdemeanor offender, so the courts need these private probation services to take the people that the state just isn’t going to pay for,” Skordas said.  

Skordas also said it all depends on which judge the offender is assigned to and which county they’re in.  

“Some judges will have agencies that they like and there may be just one agency in the courtroom and the judge will say ‘there’s the agency you’re going to,’” Skordas said.  

Several probationers believe there needs to be more transparency in what their options are.  

“These people make you feel like you have to do it there. And for me, it prolonged my stay in the court system because I had to choose between staying with them or working…because they made it impossible for me to do both,” one probationer who went through a Salt Lake County private provider said.  

“If somebody feels like they are being taken advantage of, there should be a way for them to raise those alarms without consequences to them,” Salt Lake County DA Gill said.  

Until assessments and treatments are kept separate, Gill believes probationers will continue to be at risk of staying in the criminal justice system.  

“We perpetuate that cycle of violence. We perpetuate that and we are constantly using taxpayer dollars to solve a problem which we are helping create by our inaction,” Gill said.  

Oscar Mata is the CEO of the Ethical Assessment Center in Ogden. It is a licensed state-wide JRI facility that offers evaluations, Prime for Life, and online courses.  

“The question I always ask myself is ‘who is benefitting from all the treatment?’ I would argue that it’s not the community…it’s the treatment providers,” Mata said.  

Mata worked with Representative Lou Shurtliff on House Bill 55 before she died.  

The bill, which would prevent private providers from doing both court-ordered assessments and treatments, stalled in a house committee. Some of its supporters are hoping another lawmaker will pick it up.  

“I hope there is someone down at the State Capitol that has the courage she had to fight for it…it is important. I don’t care who you are. Everyone makes mistakes, and some mistakes are worse than others. No one should be exploited for monetary gain because of that mistake,” Mata said.  

In the meantime, some are pushing for more oversight on these private probation agencies.  

“If the courts and legislature could say ‘look we are going to regulate what you do, what services you’re providing for certain crimes, and there are going to be state mandated services…sanctions if you will.’ So that they’re not just saying ‘well we think you need this class’ where the rest of us are going ‘we don’t even know what that class means,’” Greg Skordas said.  

Some private probation provider owners agree that more rules are needed.  

“I know people are being taken advantage of. I know…I know that most my complaints that you’ve heard about…if the government had better structure and regulations for us, would be able to show you that what that complaint was is not necessarily a violation or unethical or unprofessional,” one private probation owner said.  

These private probation agencies are licensed through the Department of Commerce Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing.  

Communications Director Zach Whitney said unless someone submits a complaint to their division, they do not send any of their investigators to make sure the business is following the rules.  

“If there is a true complaint or something of substance that our rules do not oversee, then the Department of Human Services and or DOPL can’t do anything about it. So, then a client who has a concern has just been shut down basically by the state when they have a concern. Instead of…you know the investigator actually being able to come to me and say ‘hey there’s this concern. Can we talk about it so I can give them your perception and what your information is?” one private probation owner said.  

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