Messenger: Lawmaker targets probation-for-profit companies in Missouri

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St. Louis Post Dispatch on 11/19/2018 by Tony Messenger

Jerry Swartz knows a thing or two about making money.

The Moberly, Mo., man owns an insurance agency, a real estate development company and other businesses. He has more than 30 employees. He’s done well for himself.

So when he describes the revenue strategy of private probation companies in Missouri, his words carry a certain gravitas.

Private probation companies are trying to violate their clients,” Swartz says. “That’s their business model.”

When he was charged with a DWI in 2014, Swartz ended up being supervised by private probation company American Court Services, as ordered by Ralls County Associate Judge David Mobley. He was ordered to wear a “SCRAM” ankle bracelet that monitors alcohol use, even while he was in jail over alleged violations of his probation. State law says the bracelets are only to be ordered in use for people with multiple DWI convictions. Swartz had none.

He paid. And he could afford it. But he and other advocates for reform of the private probation industry realize that the system takes horrible advantage of poor people, who end up in jail when they are violated and then also end up owing thousands of dollars in jail bills. It happens in Ralls, Jackson and Jefferson counties. In St. Francois and Dent counties. In Caldwell and Crawford counties. It happens all over Missouri because the state has almost no regulations, licensing or standards related to private probation companies.

This year, thanks to the efforts of state Rep. Justin Hill, R-Lake Saint Louis, that changed a little bit.

Hill is a former cop who was first alerted to the issue of private probation companies taking advantage of people in the judicial system by a constituent, John DeFriese of Wentzville. DeFriese’s son had been subjected to pretrial drug testing by Private Correctional Services in Jackson County. The testing over a period of years cost the family thousands of dollars, and DeFriese discovered it was using a lab that tests far below accepted federal standards.

Those drug test results, often posted to a publicly accessible court website, are used by judges in Missouri to jail defendants for violations of probation on misdemeanor allegations. When DeFriese paid for private testing at a lab that followed federal standards, every result on his son was negative.

“I couldn’t believe this was happening,” Hill says.

So he filed a bill that would require private probation companies to follow the federal standard, as the state’s Department of Corrections and probation officers do. The bill would also relieve defendants from having to drive more than 50 miles to meet with their private probation officer. The new law took effect Aug. 28.

The bill passed the Missouri House with only one dissenting vote. It was cast by state Rep. Jeff Pogue, R-Salem, home of MPPS, the private probation company that has its own chair in the courtroom of Dent County Associate Circuit Judge Brandi Baird.

When I called MPPS to talk to Lisa Blackwell, who runs the office, she hung up on me.

“I don’t have nothing to say to you,” she said.

MPPS is owned by Community Services of Missouri, a private probation company founded by Judy Cowdry of St. Peters. She didn’t return calls for comment. It is one of more than a dozen such companies all over Missouri that in cooperation with some judges, work to increase county revenue by sending people back to jail over and over again for probation violations. Those violations are often related to the twice weekly drug testing required even when a case has nothing to do with drug or alcohol use.

Other than now being required to meet federal standards for that drug testing, private probation companies face nearly no oversight in Missouri. They aren’t licensed. They meet no published standards or guidelines. But in many counties they are treated like officers of the court.

“The thing you’ll find about private probation is that the good judges don’t use it,” Swartz says.

A report produced this year by nonprofit Human Rights Watch calls for massive reform of the probation-for-profit system in Missouri and several other states. The report calls for licensing, consistent standards, and a reduction in its use for pretrial bond release, particularly for misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses.

“The offender-funded system of justice is most burdensome and punitive for those who cannot afford its costs,” the report finds. “When individuals are unable to pay, they face potential arrest, extended probation periods, and incarceration.”

Swartz and DeFriese plan to continue to ask the Missouri Legislature to chip away at the use of private probation companies as a profit center, for their owners and the counties they serve. They have a willing partner in Hill, who says the core of the issue for him is protecting people’s civil rights.

“When you add it all up, you are talking about an insurmountable hole for most people,” Swartz says. “It’s a cancer you can never get rid of once you get stuck in private probation.”