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Tennessee Legislature’s Investigation Finds Inadequate Supervision of Private Probation

by Derek Gilna

A December 2018 report by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury after its audit of the state’s Private Probation Services Council found that it “did not adequately oversee private probation entities, putting probationers at risk.” The period was for July 1, 2013, through October 31, 2018.

The Council’s stated purpose is “to ensure that uniform professional and contract standards are practiced and maintained by private corporations, enterprises, and entities engaged in rendering general misdemeanor probation supervision, counseling, and collection services to the courts.”

While many states have put more emphasis on reducing their prisoner head-counts, more attention has been focused on the operation of probation services, which in the case of Tennessee has been outsourced to private operators. Tennessee is the corporate home of private-prison operator CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, and has a reputation for being friendly to private companies engaged in correctional services. 

As noted by the Comptroller, the number of “lawsuits against private probation entities call into question whether the council is adequately overseeing the entities.” An area of concern in the report is the “division of oversight responsibilities,” implying that it is unclear who is actually making sure that private probation companies are performing their duties as required by statute.

The report suggests that the “General Assembly may want to consider a review of the statutes governing the oversight responsibilities of the courts and the council to identify and clarify any gaps or overlap in supervision of private probation entities,” as well as more closely monitor whether uniform professional and contract standards are practiced and maintained by private corporations, enterprises, and entities engaged in rendering general misdemeanor probation supervision, counseling, and collection of court assessed fees, fines, and restitution.”

It appears, the report continues, that the Council seems to be relying upon complaints (and lawsuits) as the primary source of regulatory oversight, which is not productive, “especially when not all concerns and noncompliance may be reported through the complaint process, does not allow the council to effectively regulate the private probation entities.” The Council requires regular audits, the report observes, and needs to establish a process “to verify information reported by the private probation entities because (it) had not established a process to verify information” provided by those entities. 

In conclusion, the report recommends that the Council needs to do a better job of obtaining “critical entity information, such as the location of all private probation entity satellite offices; a list of each entity’s contracts to provide services and which court districts it serves; a list of individuals currently employed to supervise probationers; and  a description of services each entity provides for probationers,” and if operations do not improve, the legislature might want to consider abolishing the Council and replacing it with another oversight organization. 

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Source: “Private Probation Services, Performance Audit Report,” December 2018

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