Thursday, April 1, 2010

Florida's Pretrial Services Programs: Understanding the Cost to Taxpayers

Taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs expanded in Florida in the 70's and 80's when the state's jails and prisons were dangerously overcrowded, with the goal of facilitating the release of indigent defendants so they wouldn't languish in jail. Such is not the case today. Jail populations are generally under capacity in most Florida jails and crime is down, yet taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs today release defendants who are not indigent, have committed violent offenses and who often have lengthy criminal and driving offense histories. There is no consistency across the state regarding how such programs operate because they are governed by administrative orders issued by the chief judge of the circuit and not by specific legislative action.

Out of the 67 Florida counties, 28 counties have such programs and are funded from $77,000 to $5.2 million in taxpayer dollars. The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA), part of the Florida Legislature, was tasked with examing the efficiency and effectiveness of Florida's pretrial services programs with the passage of the Citizens' Right-to-Know Act in July 2008. In their latest report (10-08) issued in January 2010, OPPAGA noted that out of the 28 Florida taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs, only 24 programs responded to their legislative request for information. Of those programs that did report, they did so with varying degrees of thoroughness. Accurate reporting is mandated by the Florida Legislature yet four counties simply thumbed their noses at this requirement and didn't even bother to respond.

Hillsborough, Jackson, Monroe and Seminole Counties provided no information to OPPAGA in order to determine if their taxpayer-funded programs were meeting best practices, ensuring defendants appeared in court and were not rearrested. Of the programs that did respond, half of them did not report data on these key outcomes. As stated by OPPAGA, "the programs' failure to report outcome data limited our ability to determine the statewide percentage of defendants served by the programs and who violated the terms of their release."

So what can we determine from the information that was provided?

From the 24 taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs that provided data, the following statistics provide key information on defendants interviewed and released and what it cost the taxpayer:

Defendants interviewed for non-secure pretrial services release: 140,411
Defendants declared indigent by the court release: 57,514
Defendants recommended for non-secure pretrial services release: 19,181
Defendants granted non-secure pretrial services release: 17,586

The reporting counties are allocated $26,582,463 of tax dollars to fund their programs! The average cost to the taxpayer to fund the release of a defendant in Florida prior to trial under a pretrial services program equates to $1,511.56 per defendant!

Now let's contrast the cost to the taxpayer for a defendant to be released on a bail bond:

Average cost of bail in Florida: $2,000
Cost to the defendant for release on bail (minimum $100 or 10 percent of the full amount of the bond): $200
Cost to the taxpayer for release on bail: $0

Critics of the private surety bail industry say the only thing a bail bond does is ensure appearance. True, the cornerstone of a bail agent's responsibility is to make sure a defendant released on bail does attend all court appearances - if not, that bail agent will have to pay the full amount of the bond back to the court. However, bail agents also determine risk and obtain detailed information on all defendants they release on bail - family, friends, job, residency, social hobbies, social ties etc. - to make sure they can find that defendant at any given time. And, they often will require a defendant to check-in regularly with them or make visits to the defendant as well. But most importantly, the bail agent integrates a defendant's family and/or friends into the bail contract to help enforce conditions of release and as an added layer of accountability. All of these efforts increase public safety!

But let's talk for a minute about the failure to appear and re-arrest rates of defendants released through Florida's pretrial services programs. Of the 17,586 non-secure releases through Florida's programs, 5,402 defendants failed to appear for court or were rearrested for a new crime while under pretrial services release. At a cost of $1,511.56 per release for these 5,402 defendants, the taxpayer had a direct LOSS of $8,165,447 out of the initial $26+ million investment. We are not saying defendants released on bail don't ever fail to appear or are not rearrested for a new crime - the difference is, it costs the taxpayer nothing when this happens as the bail agent is financially and physically responsible for that defendant!

There is an old saying in the criminal justice arena regarding the type of release from jail:

"If a defendant skips on bond they know they have in effect stolen the bail agent's money and the agent has a personal incentive to bring the defendant back to court to recover their money. You can cut off your GPS monitor, cheat on your drug test or lie to your officer, but your bail agent will come and get you."

As taxpayers, we have the responsibility to let our legislative bodies know how we feel our limited tax dollars should be spent. In today's economic environment, do you want your tax dollars spent by undefined and largely unregulated pretrial services programs who have no common consistency whatsoever, or through a highly regulated and licensed private surety bail industry that costs the taxpayer nothing to release and supervise defendants from jail pending the closure of their case?

Public policy affects public safety!

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