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.

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