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Travis County changes course on electronic monitoring

Wednesday, June 19, 2019 by Jack Craver

The electronic monitoring business just got a little bit more competitive in Travis County. The Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to abandon its practice of allowing only a single company to provide tracking devices to those accused or convicted of certain crimes.

Earlier this month, county staff recommended that Dallas-based Recovery Healthcare take over the business of providing GPS ankle bracelets, which in recent years had been provided by local firm Victim Safety First. Staff also recommended that Recovery continue being the sole provider of SCRAM alcohol monitoring devices, which are required for some of those accused of alcohol-related offenses.

Outcry from other contractors, as well as criticism of requiring defendants to get their devices from one company, led the commissioners to call for a do-over of sorts.

The court voted to cancel the original solicitation and to allow both Recovery Healthcare and Victim Safety First to provide ankle bracelets for the next six months. The court also voted to direct county purchasing staff to begin negotiations with a third provider, Pflugerville-based Safe Monitoring Solutions, over that company’s potential participation.

Those votes followed testimony from a number of people criticizing the proposed exclusive contract with Recovery Healthcare.

Attorney Bill Aleshire, a former Travis County judge, attended the meeting in support of Safe Monitoring Solutions, which he said he was representing pro bono.

Aleshire denounced the “monopoly” the county was contemplating awarding to Recovery. It’s one thing for the county to award an exclusive contract in cases where the government is picking up the tab, he said, but in the case of electronic or alcohol monitors, the defendant usually pays for the service. The county only pays for the devices for indigent defendants.

“On the self-pay side, this is less like a procurement than a license,” said Aleshire. “Can you imagine setting up a licensing program and only giving out one license?”

Aleshire also noted that his clients were black. If there is any area of government, he said, where it is critical for the county to strive for diverse contractors, it is the criminal justice system. “There is going to be a disproportionate number of black and brown ankles on which these devices are placed,” he said.

Jana Ortega, a criminal defense attorney, wrote a letter to the Commissioners Court last year complaining that some of her clients stayed in jail longer than necessary because Recovery was not available to come to the jail and install the devices right away. Clients of hers who have been ordered to install ignition interlock devices in their cars have five vendors to choose from, so why should those ordered to wear ankle bracelets be limited to one, she asked.

A woman who identified herself as a stalking victim spoke in favor of keeping Victim Safety First as a vendor. The company’s commitment to protecting victims, said the woman, has allowed Travis County to increase the number of defendants released with ankle bracelets.

Finally, two speakers urged the court to reject business with Recovery Healthcare due to its recent acquisition by Core Civic, a major provider of private prisons and detention centers. The company – until recently named Corrections Corporation of America – has been at the center of controversy over conditions at its facilities, notably a detention center it operates in Taylor for women seeking asylum.

“Our values do not align with Core Civic,” said Sylvia Camarillo.

Terry Fain, chief operating officer of Recovery, did not address the criticisms of Core Civic but suggested that Recovery Healthcare operated largely independent of the parent corporation: “We are not subject to any liabilities of Core Civic,” he said.

Fain also emphasized that his company’s bid had received the highest score from county purchasing staff: “I respect the process. I ask that you respect the process also. I wonder here today had the other parties received such an overwhelming recommendation from the committee, would they be here advocating for a withdrawal of the bid and open competition.”

Although County Judge Sarah Eckhardt supported the motion to allow both Victim Safety First and Recovery Healthcare to provide ankle bracelets, she was the lone vote against the motion to negotiate a contract with Safe Monitoring Solutions, suggesting she was concerned the county was attempting to “give contracts to all proposers” rather than selecting the best quality options.

Photo by uusc4all made available through a Creative Commons license.

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