SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Utah is one of the few states that allows private probation companies to control critical aspects of a person’s life. They decide what low-level offenders must do and pay to get out of the criminal justice system.
Probation aims to give people a chance to avoid prison by taking certain courses, treatment and tests. However, with private agencies taking direct advantage of these requirements, many people believe they are taking advantage of the system.
ABC4’s Jillian Smukler spoke with several probationers who went through private providers in Utah about their experiences. They have asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation and privacy concerns.
In Utah, thousands of people are currently on probation. With more and more low-level offenders being sent to private probation providers, concerns are growing as to whether they have their best interests in mind.
“How many courses can we enroll you in?” What requirements can we put on you that make it hard to do anything else because you know if you don’t do it rightâ¦ private provider in Salt Lake County.
“I remember when I was making my first date 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 are going to keep you here as long as possible” said another probationer who went through another private Salt Lake County supplier.
Defense lawyer 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 assessment and treatment.
âWe all know, those of us who work in the system, that there are certain agencies that have a certain reputationâ¦ whether deserved or notâ¦ that they just keep keeping people in their system. It’s a revolving door, âSkordas said.
This Skordas reference system was born out of necessity. In 1990, lawmakers passed the Private Probation Provider Licensing Act to ease the pressure on the overwhelmed public agency.
Fast forward 31 years later, there are 90 active private probation providers in Utah, including 26 in Salt Lake County.
âHistorically, we’ve said this is something that shouldn’t happen, and the mix creates this conflict,â Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said.
Gill believes that assessments and treatments should be done by separate agencies, so the financial motivation to keep offenders longer is not there.
“We want to make sure that people receive direct proportional assistance without being systematically forced into longer treatment or mistreatment because they have been convicted of or ordered to do so,” said Gill.
ABC4 spoke with the owner of one of Salt Lake County’s 26 private probation agencies who disagreed.
âHe says there is a problem with an agency like mine because there may be an inherent risk for the client because they are in the same agency. Yet I am not making treatment recommendations. I can give my advice to my advisers when they say “hey, I just saw one of your clients you see on probation, they say they never had any criminal charges, they say they have never had an education and they say there is no problem. ‘ And I say ‘whoaâ¦ are you serious?’ ”
Private probation providers can charge offenders for classes, drug and alcohol testing, and anything else they deem necessary for treatment. If the person is unable to pay, the probation officer could issue an offense and the offender could end up in jail.
âI remember hearing people say they were threatened, coerced, saying ‘if you don’t pay I’m going to send a negative report,’â said Gill.
However, the owner of a private probation provider says financial obligation helps hold offenders accountable.
âIf they know they have to pay me $ 30 and they know that I will be doing case management services with them for that $ 30 appointment, they prepare to ask for help.
While these for-profit agencies rely on fees to generate income, other county-funded probation services do not have this problem.
âWe offer waivers. So we have a monthly $ 15 probation fee if someone can’t afford that, we work with them. We can reduce it to $ 10â¦ $ 5â¦ or to zero. So it really depends on the individual and where they are, âsaid Kele Griffone, Salt Lake County Division Director of Criminal Justice Services.
When someone is subject to a probation order, some of them choose their provider, others not.
âIt’s a trap because in some jurisdictions you don’t have the supporting infrastructure you need from a government-based model so you have private vendors setting up a store there,â said Gill.
âIn large counties, state and county services are overwhelmed. They don’t have the resources to take care of all the offenders, so the courts need these private probation services to pick up the people the state just isn’t going to pay for, âSkordas said.
Skordas also said it all depends on the judge the offender is assigned to and the county they are in.
âSome judges will have agencies that they like and there may be only one agency in the courtroom and the judge will say ‘there is the judge you are going to see,'” Skordas said.
Many probationers believe there should be more transparency in their options.
âThese people make you feel like you have to do it over there. And for me, it extended my time in the justice system because I had to choose between staying with them or workingâ¦ because they prevented me from doing both, âsaid a probationer who went through a private provider of the Salt Lake County.
“If someone feels like they are being exploited, there should be a way for them to set off these alarms without consequences for them,” Salt Lake County DA Gill said.
Until assessments and treatments are separated, Gill believes probationers will continue to run the risk of remaining in the criminal justice system.
âWe are perpetuating this cycle of violence. We are perpetuating that and we are constantly using taxpayer dollars to solve a problem that we are helping to create through our inaction, âsaid Gill.
Oscar Mata is the CEO of the Ethics Review Center in Ogden. It is a statewide accredited JRI institution that offers assessments, Prime for Life, and online courses.
âThe question I always ask myself is ‘who benefits from all the treatments?’ I would say it’s not the communityâ¦ it’s the treatment providers, âMata said.
Mata worked with Rep. Lou Shurtliff on Bill 55 before his death.
The bill, which would prevent private providers from doing both assessments and court-ordered treatments, was blocked by an internal committee. Some of his supporters are hoping another lawmaker will pick him up.
âI hope there is someone on the State Capitol who has the courage to stand up for thisâ¦ this 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 this mistake, âMata said.
In the meantime, some are calling for more oversight on these private probation agencies.
âIf the courts and the legislature could say, ‘Look, we’re going to regulate what you do, what services you provide for certain crimes, and there will be state-mandated servicesâ¦ penalties if you will.’ So that they don’t just say “We think you need this class” when the rest of us go “we don’t even know what this class means,” said Greg Skordas.
Some owners of private probation providers agree that more rules are needed.
âI know people are being abused. I knowâ¦ I know most of the complaints you’ve heard aboutâ¦ if the government had a better structure and better regulations for us, would be able to show you that what that complaint was is not necessarily a violation or unethical or unprofessional, âa private probation owner said.
These private probation agencies are licensed by the Professional and Professional Licensing Division of the Department of Commerce.
Communications director Zach Whitney said that unless someone files a complaint with his division, he doesn’t send any of his investigators to make sure the company is following the rules.
âIf there’s a real complaint or something substantial that our rules don’t oversee, then the Department of Social Services and / or DOPL can’t do anything about it. Thus, a customer who has a problem has just been closed by the State when he has a problem. Instead ofâ¦ you know the investigator is actually able to come to me and say ‘hey, there’s this problem’. Can we talk about it so that I can give them your perception and what is your information? Said a private probation owner.