The ban on privatized probation, written into Florida law 21 years ago, didn’t just drop out of the ozone.
“I didn’t do things without a reason,” said Carol Hanson, a Republican state representative back in 1990 and author of the legislation that stopped the state from outsourcing felony probation to private, for-profit operations. “I saw a wrong, and I wanted to correct it.”
The 2011 Legislature, in a mad rush to franchise state duties out to private companies, seems bent on erasing her words from Chapter 948 of the Florida Statutes: “A private entity may not provide probationary or supervision services to felony or misdemeanor offenders sentenced or placed on probation or other supervision by the circuit court.”
“They want to privatize everything,” said Hanson, whose 24 years in elected office included stints in the state House of Representatives and as mayor of Boca Raton. During the 1990 session, Hanson managed to shepherd her bill banning the privatization of probation through the House with an 88-13 vote. The Senate voted 32-0 for a companion bill.
The philosophical qualms lawmakers may have had about private contractors squeezing a profit out of the supervision of ex-cons had been reinforced by a six-month study from the Palm Beach County Criminal Justice Commission that found private firms hired to supervise felons on probation were “completely unaccountable,” and raised “serious public safety and management questions.”
The real impetus came out of a Palm Beach County judicial scandal. The 1990 law, in a sense, was the legacy of Circuit Judge James Carlisle, who had referred 130 of the 257 felony cases supervised by Alternative Detention Services, a private probation outfit. Then came the revelation that two of Judge Carlisle’s daughters worked for Alternative Detention Services. Worse, the judge admitted doing part-time work for the company himself, answering phones on the weekends.
An investigation found that ADS and other probation firms generated business by going into courtrooms, directly soliciting judges. It made for an unseemly mess. The county’s chief circuit judge said private probation “subjects judges to pressures I do not think judges should be subjected to." Suddenly, judicial decisions about incarceration or supervised probation tangled in the business plans of private operations, with company reps right there in the courtroom, drumming up referrals.
Judge Carlisle got off with a reprimand. It was a bit uglier in Georgia 10 years later, when Bobby Whitworth, a member of the state parole board and the former Georgia corrections commissioner, was sent to prison himself for taking a $75,000 bribe from a private probation company.
But all that stuff’s just history. The Florida Legislature, with an institutional memory dimmed by term limits, has little sense of history. There’s no one like Carol Hanson around to remind lawmakers why, 21 years ago, legislators decided privatized probation was a failed experiment.
“I’m not surprised,” she said. “It’s like they want government to be part of the chamber of commerce. They want to privatized prisons, probation, justice. And give their friends the contracts.”
But she warned, again, “There was a reason we passed that law.”