Longform

Can private probation companies be both monitor and counselor for their clients?

Dan Beeck knows how expensive it is to get a DUI.

As the owner of one of Colorado's biggest private probation companies, Rocky Mountain Offender Management Systems, he contracts with six of the state's 22 judicial districts to monitor mostly first-time DUI offenders. In addition to fines, each one is slapped with a $50 monthly fee to cover the cost of probation and must also spend $100 to $140 per month on mandatory alcohol-education classes and therapy.

Repeat offenders and those who blow more than twice the legal limit can be on the hook for more than a year, spending thousands of dollars in the process.

As a result, some convicted drunk drivers don't complete their court-ordered treatment. Several years ago, as the recession began to gnaw at people's finances, Beeck says, "My staff came to me and said, 'Gosh, if there was a way that treatment was free, people would attend and people would complete successfully, and some of the problems we're having in society around these issues would begin to go away.'

"Well, obviously that can't happen," he continues. "It can't be free. But I did start thinking in the back of my mind, 'I wonder if that's really true?' If it was free for people who couldn't afford it, would they really attend?"

So Beeck, a sturdy man with a deep voice and a no-nonsense attitude, set up an experimental program in Jefferson and Larimer counties in which he paid addiction counselors to provide free alcohol classes to up to sixty indigent offenders at a time. It worked; their completion rates, he says, were higher than those of the general population.

"That was an eye-opener," Beeck says. Armed with that information, he approached some of the private counselors who provide alcohol treatment to drunk drivers and asked if they'd be willing to reduce their fees. "The first few we called, we were told, 'Absolutely not,'" he says. "And that was frustrating."

So in November 2008, he applied for a state license to open his own alcohol-treatment business, setting up shop in three locations where he was already providing private probation. And while he couldn't afford to treat everyone for free, he set cut-rate prices: $50 per month, with no intake fee and no penalty fee for missing a class.

"We've made treatment accessible to everyone," Beeck says.

Not surprisingly, some of the treatment providers who make their livings serving DUI offenders balked at Beeck's low prices and, more important, at what they saw as a serious conflict of interest when someone profits from serving as both the enforcer of the law and as a confidant to whom the offender is expected to divulge his secrets.

"As clinicians, we are trained to avoid conflict of interest or any appearance of it," says Kathleen DeHerrera, the owner of Creative Recovery Counseling in Aurora. "This just seems like such a blatant conflict of interest, or at least setting the stage for that to occur, that we were all taken aback and appalled by it."

At first the state agreed. After a probationary period, the Colorado Division of Behavioral Health, which licenses substance-abuse treatment providers, denied Beeck's treatment license, citing the exact conflict of interest the treatment providers feared.

But as soon as a group of those providers pooled their money, hired a lobbyist and took their fight to the State Capitol to make sure a similar situation could never happen again, the division changed its mind.

******

When someone gets his first DUI, he usually ends up pleading guilty in exchange for no jail time and a reduced sentence. However, "reduced" can often mean the suspension of a driver's license as well as mandatory counseling, alcohol classes and urine tests.

All are monitored by probation officers or, more likely, private probation case managers. Private probation companies have existed in Colorado since 1996, when lawmakers decided to remedy the problem of too many cases and not enough probation officers by allowing private companies to handle the overflow.

Now judicial districts can contract with these providers to supervise low-risk offenders while state probation officers take on the middle- and high-risk ones. If you get a DUI in one of the seventeen districts with contracts, chances are good you'll be monitored by a private company like Rocky Mountain Offender Management Systems (RMOMS). And if you fail to complete the requirements of your probation, RMOMS can report you to state probation, which can ask the court to toughen your sentence.

Karen Moreau first heard that RMOMS was looking to provide DUI treatment — and for significantly lower prices — in April 2009. A psychologist who opened her practice, Addiction Treatment Outpatient Services, in 1992, it's her job to keep state probation officers and private case managers updated about whether their clients are attending classes and making progress. The news surprised her: She'd worked with RMOMS for years but had no inkling the company was interested in providing treatment. (Beeck says other treatment providers knew he'd been treating indigent offenders for free.) In fact, RMOMS clients sometimes came to Moreau to complete their court-ordered counseling.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar