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?

No comments:

Post a Comment