Monday, January 11, 2010

Pretrial Release: Is this Issue on the Radar for Candidates for Orange County Mayor?

Pretrial services/release programs are facing increased scrutiny across the nation for their liberal release procedures and minimal supervision practices. In today's tough economic environment, many government-funded programs and services are being cut, including public safety. Elected officials must look closely at how limited tax dollars are spent, while still balancing the budget.

So why are county and state governments across the country continuing to spend millions of tax dollars on pretrial services/release programs to release and "supervise" criminal defendants when the private sector does so for free and much more effectively? Why for example is the National Association of Counties, a membership organization whose primary members are counties that use tax dollars to pay a membership fee, advocating for increased use of taxpayer funds to establish, run and manage pretrial services/release programs locally?

In Orange County, Florida, the private surety bail industry has been instrumental in bringing to light the kinds of releases happening through the jail's pretrial services/release program, which is funded at $1.7M. Using the jail's own information required through the Citizens' Right-to-Know Act, the industry was able to prove that defendants charged with serious offenses, who had lenghthy prior criminal and/or driving offense histories, failures to appear and violations of probation, were routinely being released through the program - all without ever seeing a Judge. After such releases were made public to the citizens and a legal challenge was filed with the 5th District Court of Appeal, the Chief Judge and other elected officials suddenly decided to change the release process, which now requires a Judge's order for release through the pretrial services/release program.

A victory for the industry for sure, yet the same level of funding is still in place even though jail staff are supervising many less defendants than previously. And a new disturbing trend is taking place: the Initial Appearance Judges are now ordering more defendants into the program without any financial conditions and continued limited supervision. Defendants are being released for domestic violence, petit theft, burglary of a conveyance, driving with license suspended/revoked, no valid driver's license, possession cannabis and drug paraphernalia, possession of oxycodone, battery, DUI, trespassing after warning, criminal mischief and aggravated battery on a pregnant person! All released free of charge on your tax dollars!

Seven candidates are running for Orange County Mayor, three of which are incumbents: Commissioners Mildred Fernandez, Linda Stewart and Bill Segal. The three incumbents are thoroughly versed in the issues regarding the private surety bail industry's concerns regarding the amount of taxpayer money going to run a huge bureacratic program and the effect on public safety.

Pretrial services/release programs have no constituency to back their cause except their own narrow interests - that of maintaining the status quo and their government funding. Florida legislation is being proposed that would require more accountability from these programs; they are fighting it because they are fearful of further transparency that may ultimately result in less taxpayer funding.

The candidates for Orange County Mayor should take note that their constituents do not support such programs. In response to a mailer sent to thousands of households regarding the types of releases occurring through Orange County's pretrial services/release program, citizens emphatically insisted that they did not want their tax dollars spent to reward criminal behavior! Counties are not required to establish and/or run a pretrial services/release program; if Judges want to release defendants with no monetary conditions, they have discretion to do so already - it's called release on recognizance. The only function county or state governments should consider funding regarding pretrial services is to provide enough adequate staff to perform the investigatory function into a defendant's background for a meaningful first appearance session so that a Judge can make an informed release decision. This one critical function would save significant tax dollars by eliminating the remaining unnecessary functions of pretrial services/release programs.

If the candidates for Orange County Mayor care about how your tax dollars are spent in the future, they should listen to your concerns and make the issue of pretrial services/release programs a part of their platform and lobby for greater accountability and transparency.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Pretrial Release Programs: Transparency or Concealment?

The National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies and the Pretrial Justice Institute have been on a crusade to change the reporting requirements for the Citizens' Right-to-Know legislation in Florida. This very valuable piece of legislation ensures transparency for pretrial services/release programs that use your tax dollars to release and minimally supervise criminal defendants. The legislation in Florida was implemented in 2008 in an effort to document the effectiveness and efficiencey of such programs. It has been a very effective tool for investigating the types of defendants being released into pretrial services/release programs across the state. The current legislation requires programs to provide a weekly register of information on the types of defendants they release, to include the criminal/social history, failures to appear, violations of probation, indigency status and other key information. There are only eleven data requirements to report on and yet national pretrial services advocacy groups and programs are complaining that that is just too much work to produce for the public.

Programs claim thay already produce the same information for their internal stakeholders and the legislation only causes duplication of efforts. But what about the public's right to such information. If we wanted to see jail statistics and demographis, such as what the current legislation requires, a public records request would have to be made, the programs could take weeks to produce it and you would then be stuck with the price tag for information you probably couldn't decipher. As it is, there are no sanctions to programs who fail to report all of the data requirements.

The majority of jails currently have expert statisticians and data reporting systems that can run reports on all manner of data such as: average length of stay, average daily population, modeling forcasts, budget forecasts, number of misdemeanor and felony defendants on any given day, types of criminal charges, failures to appear, violations of probation, open charges, prior violent offenses or convictions, indigency status and the like. So why is the requirement to report much less data on a weekly register so time consuming and expensive. A simple template could be designed for reporting required data if more detailed information can be reported at the click of a finger. Accurately reporting on the Citizens' Right-to-Know criteria is a key element to understanding release mechanisms and appropriate resources should be allocated to the task.

New Florida legislation is being proposed by the private surety bail industry that would force pretrial services/release programs to adhere to reporting requirements they have tried to skirt. Senate bill 782 is sponsored by Senator Thrasher and House bill 445 is sponsored by Representative Dorworth. We commend both of these legislators for helping to ensure transparency and accountability of pretrial services/release programs in Florida. Both bills contain specific eligilibilty requirements for release under the program, requires staff to certify to the court a defendant's eligibility for the program and prohibits the collection of fees from defendants.

A main mantra of pretrial services/release programs is that they assist indigent defendants to be released from jail who would otherwise languish in jail just because they couldn't afford a monetary bond. After all, Florida Statutes state that there should be a presumption in favor of non-monetary release. Yet pretrial services/release programs are in an uproar because the new legislation would prevent them from assessing fees. Sounds like the double standard that it is.

Florida's pretrial services/release programs have been working with the Pretrial Justice Institute and the National Assocation of Counties to try to get the reporting requirements for the current Citizens' Right-to-Know legislation minimized. The initial goal was to change the weekly reporting requirements to monthly reporting requirements. Suddenly these efforts were, "suspended," when learning of the new proposed legislation that would ultimately tighten up the eligibility requirements for defendants. However in reality, the proposed legislation doesn't add any extra burden to what existing programs already do. There are no additional investigatory requirements either and programs per Florida Statute, must already certify to the court it has determined eligibility for release under the program.

So what is all the fuss about?

Pretrial services/release programs are self-serving in their efforts to continue to use our tax dollars to support a hugh bureaucratic system that is better done by the private sector. They don't want transparency or anyone butting into their programs. Judges want such programs because it gives them an easy release mechanism and puts the burden on the program for ensuring they have done a thorough investigation. If something goes wrong, each blames the other party!

Private surety bail is simple: bail agents are solely responsible for defendants they release on bail and if that defendant fails to appear for court, the bail agent pays the full amount of the bond to the court and takes the taxpayer out of the equation.

A pretrial services/release program nor a bail agent can ensure that a defendant will not commit another crime while out on release . . . but, you can trust that the bail agent has a much better handle on the defendant's whereabouts and circumstances rather than a pretrial services officer who never leaves their station or makes any field visits regarding the defendant.

You be the judge: do you prefer transparency in how your tax dollars are spent to release and supervise criminal defendants or do you want concealment of those facts?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Failing to Appear: Pretrial Release vs. Private Surety Bail

An Accredited North Carolina bail agent recently shared a story with us regarding a defendant he had bonded out and then who had failed to appear for court. This defendant was a well-known career criminal who this bail agent was very familiar with. As should always be the case, this agent did his job well by making sure he had detailed information on the defendant, his family, friends, place of employment, hobbies and popular hangout spots, just in the event he needed to find the defendant at any given time.

Turns out the defendant did fail to appear for a court proceeding and the bail agent was issued a forfeiture by the court, which meant he had to pay the full amount of the bond back to the court. He had 150 days to find the defendant before a final judgment was issued and the bail agent lost the opportunity to recover any amount of the bond already paid. An arrest warrant was issued for the defendant.

However, the bail agent wanted to prove a point regarding the different tools and methods bail agents use vs. law enforcement to find fugitive defendants who fail to appear. It is a well known fact among law enforcement agencies, which are already overtaxed fighting and/or preventing crime, that finding defendants who fail to appear is a low priority. Bail agents however are financially and physically responsible for defendants they release on bond and have an inherent interest to find a defendant and find them as quickly as possible.

In order to make a strong statement regarding the difference in fugitive recovery for a bail agent vs. law enforcement, the North Carolina bail agent let the forfeiture go into final judgement after having given law enforcement 150 days to find the defendant, arrest him and take him back to court. Law enforcement never did find the defendant during the full 150 days. The day after the forfeiture went into judgment, the bail agent, based on his detailed knowedge of the defendant, located, arrested and took the defendant back to jail. How long do you think this took? One hour.

The main message is this: a licensed bail agent was able to find the defendant in one hour vs. five months allotted for law enforcement and used no taxpayer funds whatsoever. Law enforcement should not be straddled with having to find defendants who fail to appear, but should be focused on keeping our communites safe. Law enforcement officials know the beneftis that bail agents provide and often work closely with them to find and secure dangerous criminals who are out on bond.

However, if this particular defendant had been released through a taxpayer-funded pretrial services/release program, he would probably still be roaming the streets free to commit additional crimes. Such programs offer limited face-to-face contact with defendants and supervision is often relegated to calling in to an automated telephone system. Pretrial services/release programs never have interaction with a defendant's family or friends or step out of the office to do any field visits.

Yet in these tough economic times, county and state governments continue to allocate millions of taxpayer funds to run hugh bureaucratic pretrial services/release programs instead of relying on the private surety bail industry, which has been proven to be the most effective and efficient method of pretrial release. Such programs should focus on doing a thorough investigation into a defendant's criminal and social background so that a judge can make a meaningful release decision at a first appearance session. If a judge chooses to release a defendant into a pretrial services/release program, such decisions should be limited to defendants charged with first-time, non-violent offenses.

A nationwide effort is underway by the private surety bail industry to expose pretrial services/release programs for what they really are: a taxpayer-funded criminal welfare release system! Public safety is not enhanced at all by such releases; but non-accountability for the actions of criminals is.

Speak out to your elected officials and let then know you will not stand to have your tax dollars spent so irresponsibly. To learn more about our efforts, post your questions on our blog.

Public policy affects public safety.