Should the LA Board of Supervisors Approve An Electronic Monitoring Contract With the Company That OC Just Fired for a String of Failures? – UPDATEDNovember 19th, 2013 by Celeste Fremon
The vote on the Sentinel Offender Services contract was postponed until next Tuesday, November 26.
WHAT IS SENTINEL OFFENDER SERVICES AND WHY IS LA COUNTY OFFERING THEM A CONTRACT—AGAIN?
On Tuesday, November 19, the LA County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on a pending contract to provide an adult electronic monitoring program (or EMP) for offenders, so that some of those who might have served their sentences in jail can instead spend their time at home—with restrictions.
Some form of Electronic Monitoring Program has been utilized by LA County probation since 1992 and, in recent years, the county has contracted for its monitoring services with a company called Sentinel Offender Services.
However, in November 2011, Probation and the LA County Sheriff’s Department hoped to expand their collective use of EMP to help better deal with the influx of AB109 inmates that, post realignment, had been landing in the county’s care, not the state’s.
With this in mind, the county began a search for the best firm to replace Sentinel.
An RFP went out on November 16, 2012, and out of a cluster of potential applicants, two finalists emerged—one of them, Sentinel Offender Services. When the smoke cleared this summer, according to the most recent report from Probation Chief Jerry Powers, Sentinel got the highest rating.
And so it was that the brand new EMP provider that the board is slated to approve on Tuesday, turned out to be the old EMP provider.
HOWEVER, TWO RATHER LARGE CAUTIONARY NOTES HAVE EMERGED WITH REGARD TO SENTINEL OFFENDER SERVICES
It turns out there are issues with Sentinel that the Board of Supervisors might want to consider—or at the very least discuss—before it rubber stamps the proposed contract.
Large Cautionary Note Number 1: In June of this year, Orange County Probation found that Sentinel—which was also OC’s provider—had been guilty of what amounts to gross incompetence.
When OC Probation notified the company of the problems it had discovered, Sentinel assured probation officials that the people responsible for the issue had been reassigned or let go.
But in July the problems reportedly continued.
Here is what as Sal Hernandez of the Orange County Register wrote on the matter:
Most of the failures in the units appear to have been discovered by probation officials June 4, when deputy probation officers and supervisors reviewed the tracking data for 13 convicts wearing ankle devices, a June 13 memo said.
Officers found a number of the units had stopped providing coordinates for days, yet the company never notified officers
In one case, the last location sent by the unit was May 7 – that’s 28 days without a signal even though the devices are supposed to transmit coordinates every 60 seconds.
In another incident, officials found one convict required to use a breath-alcohol testing device failed the test 81 times in a 35-day period, yet probation officials were never notified. After the error was discovered, the convict was arrested for violating the terms of his release.
Documents reviewed by the Register show Sentinel attributed most of the errors to mechanical failures, including water damage of internal computer boards, defective units and “sporadic and insufficient length of battery recharging.”
“Fortunately, these issues were not universal, and there were no absconded clients, but the extent of these reporting failures is greater than we have ever experienced,” a June 27 letter from the company said. “We are confident that these oversights will not occur again.”
But in their report to supervisors, probation officials said problems persisted.
“It was alarming,” [OC Supervisor Todd] Spitzer said in the statement. In a June board meeting, he suggested the board consider issuing a 60-day notice of termination. “These untracked individuals posed an immediate threat to public safety, and I could not just sit back and watch.”
Later OC Probation Department officials also found that the company failed to take photos of participants in the monitoring program, a requirement under their contract.
In early August, the LA Times reported that a fed-up Orange County Probation fired Sentinel.
BUT ORANGE COUNTY ISN’T THE ONLY GROUP THAT HAS HAD SERIOUS PROBLEMS WITH SENTINEL
This brings us to Large Cautionary Note Number 2: In September 2013, the story broke that Sentinel had, on its own, illegally extended the sentences for hundreds—and possibly thousands—of Georgia probationers in order to make extra bucks in the form of fees that probationers were required to pay the company for monitoring them.
(Unlike California, the state of Georgia has contracted with private for profit companies to handle its probation services altogether, not just their EMP.)
Here’s a clip from a September 24, 2013 report on the matter by Nicole Flatow of Think Progress:
In January, Nathan Ryan Mantooth was sentenced to 12 months of probation for an improper lane change by a county judge in Georgia. He was ordered to pay a $420 fine, attend a driver improvement course, and pay a monthly probation supervision fee of $35 to Sentinel Offender Services, a private probation firm. He paid the fee and completed the course within a week of his sentencing. Twice, he went to Sentinel to submit his certificate of completion but was told his name was not yet in the computer. But when he was pulled over two months later for failure to wear a seatbelt, police found an outstanding warrant filed by Sentinel for a probation violation, and took him into custody.
Last week, a Georgia county judge ruled that Sentinel Offender Service had illegally extended the sentence of Mantooth and potentially thousands of others who were required to pay the firm monthly probation fees, and was illegally ordering electronic monitoring for misdemeanor offenders — prohibited by state law — while charging probationers for their own monitoring.
So should LA be concerned about what happened in Georgia, where the system is so different than ours? We think LA should be concerned. The Sentinel that got in trouble in Georgia, is the same Irvine-based company that operates here. Moreover the apparent fraud it was perpetrating on low-income lawbreakers, was not a brief flurry of wrongdoing. To the contrary, it went on over time.
For instance, in 2012 NBC News reported on lawsuits by Georgia probationers against the company that, along with documents obtained by NBC reporters, suggested a history of overcharging and or defrauding probationers going back to 2009, meaning even in the face of a bunch of legal action and bad press, Sentinel was mighty slow to learn its lesson—and didn’t appear to cease and desist with this ethically loathsome behavior until it was absolutely forced to do so in 2013.
MAYBE THERE ARE VERY GOOD REASONS WHY THESE TWO RECENT LARGE-ISH SCANDALS PLAGUING A SINGLE COMPANY AREN’T DEAL BREAKERS FOR LA COUNTY.
But they are big enough red flags that the Supervisors must not rush to vote on the Sentinel contract without asking some very probing questions.
And those questions must be asked in public—not behind closed doors.