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Judge rips privately run probation

System rife with fraud and conflicts of interest, he says
By Tom Sharp
The Associated Press
December 2, 2003

NASHVILLE - Tennessee's system of using private probation companies to oversee freed criminals is rife with potential fraud and conflicts of interest, a Memphis judge told the Legislature's Corrections Oversight Committee on Monday.

Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft of Memphis is chairman of the Private Probation Services Council, formed by the legislature to monitor the private companies that are supposed to ensure that criminals on probation for misdemeanors follow the terms of their release.

Craft painted a picture of complete chaos in the system, as least as it pertains to Memphis.
It's created a nightmare," Craft told the committee.
He said one company in Memphis supposedly is overseeing 1,100 people with just two employees. He said companies charge probationers fees "that frankly are not justified" and amount to little more than bribes for not revoking their probation.

He said the system has put judges in the position of choosing among private companies, which opens them to charges of favoritism. He said the upshot is that many private probation companies are selected, in essence, by the defense attorneys for the probationers, who may favor the most lenient ones.

He reported that there are questions about the public service overseen by the private companies, which he said often amounts to the companies using the probationers as laborers for "pet projects that benefit the companies."

Craft outlined for the committee a set of rules the council wants enacted to give it more regulatory authority. The legislators asked whether they might need to revisit the whole system, and Craft said they should - but that in the meantime the rules should be adopted so something can be done.

"The reason it took us five years to get these rules adopted is that nobody cared," Craft testified. "The judge I replaced was so disgusted he just quit going to the meetings."

"We need to do something, because this is a serious problem," said Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville.

Craft told the committee a bill still pending in the legislature would allow private companies to oversee some felons in addition to misdemeanor offenders, which he encouraged them not to do.

Craft said the council is seeking the authority to charge probationers $4 a year to fund its oversight activities. The attorney general is considering whether that is permissible, he said.

He said the private companies are "a godsend" in some rural areas of the state without the government resources to oversee probation, but said, "I would never have done this in Memphis."

The cases used to be handled by the state, but private companies were allowed into the business in 1998 in an effort to reduce the state's caseload.


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