Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Pretrial Justice Institute Should Tell the Whole Truth

The Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI), an organization whose mission is to promote government-funded pretrial release services across the country, recently posted a blog article indicating that Pasco County, Florida Sheriff Bob White was unduly seeking an increase to his budget. The PJI claimed such a budget request would be unwarranted if the Sheriff had not eliminated the jail's government-funded pretrial release program. According to the PJI, there would be no need to request additional funding for deputies to fight crime and make our streets and neighborhoods safer because the pretrial release program, "operated to facilitate the pretrial release of defendants who were deemed to be low-risk, while ensuring high-risk defendants were detained," before it was eliminated.

Really? Only low-risk defendants were released?

Well if you believe that individuals charged with . . . battery, domestic violence, driving under the influence and with a minor; possession of and trafficking in controlled substances, heroin, cocaine, cannabis; aggravated battery, aggravated battery with great bodily harm, aggravated battery on a pregnant person, hindering communication with law enforcement, burglary, grand theft, intentional threat to do harm, carrying a concealed firearm, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, battery by strangulation, driving with license revoked as a habitual offender, driving with no valid driver's license and other serious driving offenses . . . are deemed to be, "low risk," I would venture to say that you would be in the minority. Except for proponents of government-funded pretrial release programs.

Because you see, individuals charged with these very same offenses are routinely released every day into pretrial release programs using your tax dollars with less oversight than provided by the private surety bail industry. Some programs have judges releasing defendants into these programs while others allow jail staff to make the release decision. Legal challenges have already prevented jail staff from making release decisions in Florida counties.

So what else did the PJI not share in their blog posting? Lots.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office eliminated its government-funded pretrial release program in 2007 - not 2009 as PJI stated. This was done as a budget-cutting measure in order to put more deputies on the street. By doing so, the Sheriff actually saved taxpayers $348,000 annually. As proponents of government-funded pretrial release programs always say when any budget cut is proposed for their program, the PJI and pretrial release practitioners claimed that without Pasco County's pretrial release program, defendants would languish in jail for weeks, months and years because they could not afford monetary release. What Sheriff White already knew was that defendants were able to pay for their own release from his jail while others were routinely released on their own recognizance. The Pasco County pretrial release program was not one that was efficient enough to keep so it was eliminated.

And guess what happened?

In 2008, the jail's population increase was only five defendants over the previous year when the program was still in place. When considering the population growth of Pasco County during that same time, there was a net decrease in per capita jail bed days.

Pasco County Commissioner Michael Cox, in a 2010 letter to Florida Legislators, stated it had been the county's experience that the pretrial release program had no effect on reducing the jail's population and through elimination of the pretrial release program, "the reality is that we have seen no measurable increases in jail population." He went on to say that the county's experience has shown that, "defendants appear in court at higher rates if they are under the supervision of a surety agent." In his final paragraph, Commissioner Cox summed it up as follows: "The bottom line is that our Sheriff eliminated an un-needed program that has not caused the negative reaction that many people projected. What it did was allow Pasco County to have four additional deputies on the street."

In addition, Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano wrote a similar letter to Florida Legislators in 2010 stating that, "we eliminated our pretrial release program; some said it would cause jail overcrowding. It did not." Commissioner Mariano felt that defendants who had to pay for their own release from jail were more responsible for their own conduct. In his words he said. "I for one would rather have the private industry tracking down defendants than have to use precious county resources to do so." By eliminating the pretrial release program, "this allows the Sheriff to have more boots on the street and has kept Pasco County safer as a result."

The PJI states that, "$90 million is a lot of money to spend on corrections, particularly when this recession has created so many other pressing needs." Did the PJI not fully understand the other responsibilities of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office besides running the jail? Seems not.

You see, the Sheriff's Office is responsible for providing law enforcement services to Pasco County's 500,000 residents as well. This includes responding to approximately 250,000 calls for service annually in addition to running other critical programs within the Sheriff's Office: the Uniform Operations Bureau, the Criminal Investigations Unit and the Communications Unit. These three critical components of the Sheriff's Office comprise numerous functions and law enforcement services to the citizens of Pasco County. To imply that all $90 million of the Sheriff's budget is used strictly to manage the jail is very misleading and totally inaccurate. And remember, approximately $1.6 million of the Sheriff's budget is allocated to health insurance and pension costs, which are out of his control.

The PJI would have us all believe that if not for a government-funded pretrial release program, judges would simply have to, "guess the risk level" of a defendant in order to make a release decision. The Pasco County jail's Central Booking section provides inmate processing for all law enforcement agencies operating within Pasco County. Inmates are frisk searched, photographed, fingerprinted, entered into and released from the inmate management system. Central Booking conducts various computerized checks for each arrest and release. In 2008, the section processed a total of 37,666 inmates. In addition, both the State Attorney and the Public Defender have information on a defendant's criminal history and community ties during the defendant's initial appearance before a judge if they haven't already been released, and this information is shared with the judge in order to make an informed release decision.

The PJI's real beef, along with their partner, the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies (NAPSA), is that many defendants are able to post a monetary bond for their release and that fact is against all that the PJI and NAPSA believe in. You see, both organizations have as their standards that, "compensated sureties should be abolished." They also believe that financial conditions for release from jail should, "never be used in order to detain the defendant." Regardless of their alleged crime.

The need to have to hire additional deputies in Pasco County, and counties all across our country, in order to keep our neighborhoods and communities safe may not be one we would all choose in a perfect world. In these tough economic times many government and private organizations alike have to make hard budget decisions. But public safety should be the last element cut if at all possible. Taking money from the Sheriff to hire additional deputies, which based on his experience and wisdom as Sheriff is not something he would just ask for if not needed, and instead using those taxpayer funds to re-establish a pretrial release program based on the philosophy that financial conditions should never be imposed for release from jail - regardless of the alleged crime or the ability to pay for release - is not a, "re-evaluation of how to best spend taxpayer dollars on community corrections."

Only a person with a heart of stone could read the PJI's advice without laughing!

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