Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Career Defendants Released on Tax Dollars

It is the intent of the Florida Legislature to create a presumption in favor of release on non-monetary conditions for any person who is granted pretrial release unless such person is charged with a dangerous crime.  Such person shall be released on monetary conditions if it is determined that such monetary conditions are necessary to assure the presence of the person at trial or at other proceedings, to protect the community from risk of physical harm to persons, to assure the presence of the accused at trial, or to assure the integrity of the judicial process.

Dangerous crimes are defined in F.S. 907.041(4)(a) and includes crimes such as acts of domestic violence, stalking, aggravated assault or battery, child abuse, burglary, robbery and abuse of the elderly.

Although this is the intent of the Legislature, the judicial discretion lies with the judge making the release decision.

Discretion is defined as the power or right to make official decisions using reason and judgment to choose from among acceptable alternatives.  Judicial discretion can be very broad and is an aspect of judicial independence.  Judges must make release decisions based on information provided to them at initial appearance that reviews the seriousness of the defendant’s current charge, previous arrest history and convictions, failures to appear, violations of probation, community ties, employment, etc. 

It is a very important decision that affects all of us.  By and far, judges make appropriate release decisions that takes into account the needs of the defendant, victims and community safety.  Non-monetary release can also be appropriate for defendants charged with first-time or non-violent offenses who are truly indigent and don’t have a serious criminal history. 

Taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs were originally created to allow such defendants to be released from jail in a timely fashion.  Such programs make sense when used this way to keep jail populations in check and to allow defendants an opportunity to return to their families and communities for financial and emotional support until disposition of their case.

Non-monetary release funded by taxpayers however is being used more and more for defendants charged with serious offenses, even those defined as dangerous crimes, and with lengthy criminal histories.  We have to question why some of these defendants are released on taxpayer funds in the first place.

Let us give you an example:

Michael Hill has a criminal history dating back to 1988 in Orange County, FL  and has 14 prior felony convictions and 18 prior misdemeanor convictions and many plea agreements on his other charges.  He was charged with contempt of court, possession of cocaine (felony) and possession of drug paraphernalia (misdemeanor) on February 7, 2013 in Orange County, FL.  He has served time in the Florida Department of Corrections and the local jail in Orange County.  He has been arrested for non-payment of court costs and fines and a collection agency has also tried to collect his debts.  He has been declared indigent yet has posted surety bonds in the past as well as remained in jail until disposition of his case.

He was released on taxpayer funds for his arrest charges despite having a lengthy criminal history, failures to appear and violations of probation.  The Orange County, FL jail’s pretrial services program provides supervision to Mr. Hill, which means he calls in to an automated telephone answering system.  Rarely does a judge order weekly face-to-face supervision.

While Mr. Hill was released on taxpayer funds, he committed a new offense of possession of drug paraphernalia and resisting law enforcement without violence.  His pretrial release was revoked and he is currently in jail in Orange County, FL.

Mr. Hill’s criminal history is as follows:

  • 4/1988 – petit theft (misdemeanor) and resisting merchandise recovery (misdemeanor) 
  • 2/1989 – theft (felony)
  • 3/1990 – possession of controlled substance (felony)
  • 4/1992 – petit theft (misdemeanor)
  • 6/1992 – theft (felony)
  • 3/1994 – theft (felony)
  • 7/1994 – retail/farm theft (misdemeanor) and resisting law enforcement without violence (misdemeanor); violation of probation
  • 5/1995 – theft (felony)
  • 11/1995 – possession of controlled substance (felony) and drug paraphernalia (misdemeanor)
  • 11/1995 – driving with no valid driver’s license (misdemeanor)
  • 1/1996 – petit theft (misdemeanor)
  • 4/1996 – theft/2 prior convictions (felony)
  • 9/1996 – theft/2 prior convictions (felony)
  • 9/1996 – escape (felony)
  • 10/1999 – trespass in structure or conveyance (misdemeanor); possession of a controlled substance (felony) and possession of drug paraphernalia (misdemeanor); failure to appear
  • 12/2002 – possession of drug paraphernalia (misdemeanor)
  • 8/2003 – sexual battery with deadly weapon and force (life); armed robbery with weapon (felony) and false imprisonment (felony)
  • 1/2004 – retail theft (misdemeanor) and resist merchandise recovery (misdemeanor)
  • 2/2004 – theft/2 prior convictions (felony) and resisting law enforcement without violence (misdemeanor)
  • 2/2005 – possession of drug paraphernalia (misdemeanor); failed to appear
  • 4/2005 – theft/2 prior convictions (felony)
  • 7/2006 – theft/2 prior convictions (felony)
  • 1/2007 – driving with no valid driver’s license (misdemeanor)
  • 8/2007 – possession of drug paraphernalia (misdemeanor)
  • 12/2007 – petit theft (misdemeanor)
  • 2/2008 – possession of controlled substance (felony) and possession of drug paraphernalia (misdemeanor)
  • 8/2008 – theft/2 prior convictions (felony); violation of probation
  • 1/2009 – possession of controlled substance (felony) and possession of drug paraphernalia (misdemeanor)
  • 9/2009 – theft/2 prior convictions (felony) and possession of drug paraphernalia (misdemeanor)
  • 6/2010 - theft/2 prior convictions (felony); failure to appear
  • 9/2010 - theft/2 prior convictions (felony); violation of probation
There are many more individuals released on taxpayer funds that have similar histories to Mr. Hill and/or whose arrest charges shouldn't warrant release on taxpayer funds.  Judges already have the discretion to release defendants on their own recognizance, or their promise to appear for all court hearings until disposition of their case.  But since Orange County Government funds a pretrial services program, Judges have the right to release defendants in to the program thinking the program will adequately supervise them and enforce conditions of release.

For defendants charged with non-violent offenses with minimal criminal history, funding a pretrial services program might be efficient for the county in order to control jail costs.  But they are assuming a huge liability for supervising defendants such as Mr. Hill who have lengthy prior criminal histories.  After all, just look at Orange County’s failed Home Confinement program, which in theory should have had even more stringent levels of supervision than the pretrial services program.  We now know that it didn't.

As taxpayers, we have the right to question such releases as Mr. Hill's and why we are paying for it.

Public policy affects public safety.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Taxpayer-Funded Jail Supervision: A Failed System

We have been educating all of you regarding defendants that are being released on tax dollars for serious offenses and the fact that they often have lengthy criminal histories, failures to appear for court and violations of probation.  In our own back yard in Orlando, Florida, Orange County Commissioners also fund a taxpayer-funded release and supervision program.

The Community Corrections unit of the jail is funded at $6.3 million dollars, $5.9 million of which is allocated to personal services (salaries, fringe benefits), while only $421,610 is allocated to operating expenses.  This unit operates both pretrial and post-supervision programs.  The Home Confinement program that was recently shut-down due to inadequate monitoring was operated under the Community Corrections Unit.  Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs shut-down the program saying, “Her concern is that there is potentially a development of a culture of complacency that just cannot be tolerated when we are talking about public safety.” 

The county also funds a pretrial services program to the tune of $2.8 million dollars, which again is operated under the Community Corrections unit and is supposed to supervise defendants in the community while their case goes through the court system. 

Now the county wants to hire a consultant to the tune of $100,000 to tell it what is wrong with the Community Corrections unit.  The Mayor already said what is wrong with it. A culture of complacency and a major lack of accountability

You have a huge bureaucracy within the county government system; it's jail department has continued to grow in scope and outside of its intended purpose, with staffing and operational costs taking a huge chuck of the funding as evidenced above.  When you continue to grow these community supervision programs with taxpayer dollars, you also grow the bureaucracy and end up with government responsible for supervising defendants in the community.  It becomes the norm rather than the exception.

Post-adjudication supervision programs such as pretrial diversion, community service, probation and work release, if run correctly, can have an impact on recidivism and help defendants get back on the right track.  The move to establish more taxpayer-funded pretrial services programs began in the 1990s to help assist the indigent first-time, non-violent offender to be released from jail.

The ongoing and very intense movement from organizations that support taxpayer-funded programs is to try and convince county governments that money bail discriminates against the poor and that all financial releases should be eliminated.  They claim they have a much better system for determining the risk level of defendants using “evidence based practices,” to enable them to supervise defendants more effectively in our communities.  Their motto: people arrested for a crime should be helped to get out of jail as easily as possible to go back to their lives and support their families and be productive members of society. 

The support or needs for victims of crimes are never even mentioned. 

As we have recently learned with the Orange County, Florida Home Confinement unit and their dismal lack of supervision, the focus must be realigned on what methods work the best for ensuring accountability in the criminal justice system.  Too many times we have heard judges say that the, “Pretrial services unit will keep tabs on you.”  I am sure they also assumed the Home Confinement unit was doing the same. 

Judges often order taxpayer-funded supervision along with a bail bond to enforce conditions of release, such as GPS monitoring or drug testing.  That is an important function if taxpayer-funded programs really kept tabs to make sure defendants are adhering to those conditions.  Home Confinement was one of the programs charged with enforcing conditions of release – but when a defendant is able to have over 100 violations and nothing is done about it – it makes you wonder how much they really have vested in community safety and doing their job successfully.

Why do you think the supervision level of the Home Confinement program was so lax? 

Could it be that the staff that operated the program simply disengaged at the end of their shift knowing it was someone else’s responsibility to take over? 

Could it be that there was no real “skin in the game” for Home Confinement staff if a defendant had a violation? 

Could it be that there was no “financial accountability” for Home Confinement staff? 

After all, they are county employees in a huge bureaucratic system that has multiple layers of tape to discipline a county employee.  Even the county employees responsible for the lack of monitoring for Bessman Okafor that led to the death of Alex Zaldivar, have not been fired – just reassigned.

Do we really need to pay a consultant more tax dollars to tell us what is wrong?

The private bail industry, which has been proven to provide the most efficient and effective means of pretrial release, doesn’t get to disengage at the end of the day.  We have so much “skin in the game” we can’t disengage.  And our financial accountability is at the maximum . . . because if we don’t do our job and a defendant fails to appear for court, we must pay the full amount of the bond to the court.  We can’t just pass the problem on to the next shift.  We have a vested interest in knowing where the defendant is at all times and with the help of the people that put up money or property for a defendant’s release, making sure the defendant doesn’t commit a new crime and adheres to all conditions of release.

The private commercial bail industry will gladly assist Mayor Jacobs and the court with sharing our knowledge and centuries of experience in best practices for supervising defendants and ensuring they are accountable to the criminal justice system. 

Taxpayer dollars should be used more wisely in the criminal justice system, such as for inmate identification and providing the court with information to make informed release decisions.  

Not for displacing the most effective and efficient system of supervision and putting that burden on the taxpayers.

Public policy affects public safety.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Orange County, FL. Community Corrections Unit: taxpayers still paying for release and supervision

The Community Corrections Unit, part of the Orange County, FL. jail that has come under intense scrutiny due to the failures of the Home Confinement program, continues to supervise both pretrial and sentenced defendants released by the court.

The resulting investigation and shut-down of the Home Confinement program began when it was learned that no one at Orange County Corrections alerted any judges of Bessman Okafor’s 109 curfew violations, and who later murdered Alex Zaldivar while defying the home confinement order.  If a Judge had been notified of the curfew violations, he/she could have ordered Mr. Okafor to be put back in jail or put on more stringent monitoring.  Mr. Okafor should have been thoroughly monitored while on home confinement but he wasn’t.  He was not the only one.  Further investigations also show that an accused attempted murderer, carjacker and robber also violated their home confinement numerous times.

Supervision of defendants by any entity charged with doing so by the courts is paramount to public safety.  That responsibility must be taken seriously.  While a taxpayer-funded or private supervision system cannot one hundred percent prevent a defendant from committing a new crime while on supervision, the level of supervision and monitoring can drastically ensure more accountability.

Neither system has a crystal ball by which it can tell when someone is going to make the wrong moral decision and commit a crime.

However, the expertise and tools to supervise defendants in a successful manner – and the financial accountability on the line – can influence the end result.

The fact that the Community Corrections Unit, which also managed the Home Confinement program, is still supervising pretrial defendants pending the outcome of their case in our community begs to question if they know what their charges are up to.

The Pretrial Services program is charged with supervising and monitoring defendants released pretrial – even those who have a monetary bond, adding another taxpayer-funded layer of expense on top of supervision by the private industry.  Keep in mind that the supervision method for the vast majority of defendants simply entails them calling into an automated telephone answering system once a week or once a month.  

If you think that only defendants charged with minor offenses or who may have a minor criminal record are being released into the Pretrial Services program, think again.  Below are just two examples of defendants with lengthy criminal histories, failures to appear and violations of probation, that were released into the program February 26 and 27, 2013. 

William Robert Moore: charged with violation of probation on a charge of burglary of a conveyance (felony) and petit theft (misdemeanor); he was released on taxpayer funds on February 26, 2013
  • Mr. Moore has 12 prior misdemeanor convictions and 6 prior felony convictions in Orange County alone 
  • His criminal history in Orange County started in April of 1991 and continues today
  • His prior felony charges include: possession of a controlled substance (3 arrests); burglary of a conveyance (3 arrests); driving with license revoked as habitual offender; attempted aggravated battery; tampering with witness to hinder communication to law enforcement; possession of cocaine.
  • His prior misdemeanor charges include: resisting law enforcement without violence (2 arrests); battery; possession of drug paraphernalia (arrests); driving under the influence (2 arrests); obstruction by disguised person; possession of cannabis less than 20 grams; petit theft (3 arrests); driving with license suspended/revoked with knowledge (2 arrests); attaching tag not assigned; leaving scene of accidents with property damage; possession of narcotic equipment.
  • He has 7 prior failures to appear for a court appearance.
  • He has 8 prior violations of probation
Michael Steve Hill: charged with possession of cocaine (felony) and possession of drug paraphernalia (misdemeanor) on February 7, 2013; there was motion for pretrial release or reduction of bond on February 15 and a hearing on February 26, at which time Mr. Hill was released into the Pretrial Services program.  He was also released on a contempt of court charge for a writ of bodily attachment for not paying previous court costs and fines.  His taxpayer-funded release was revoked on March 7, 2013 when he committed a new crime and was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia and resisting law enforcement without violence.  
  • Mr. Hill has 18 prior misdemeanor convictions and 14 prior felony convictions in Orange County alone 
  • His criminal history in Orange County started in April of 1998 and continues today
  • His prior felony charges include: theft greater than $300 (4 arrests); possession of a controlled substance (5 arrests); petit theft/2 prior convictions (9 arrests); escape; sexual battery with deadly weapon and force; armed robbery with a weapon; false imprisonment; 
  • His prior misdemeanor charges include: theft less than $300 (6 arrests); resisting merchandise recovery (2 arrests); resisting law enforcement without violence (2 arrests); possession of drug paraphernalia (8 arrests); driving without a valid driver’s license (2 arrests); trespass in structure or conveyance.
  • He has 3 prior failures to appear for a court appearance.
  • He has 3 prior violations of probation
These are just two examples but there are so many more.  Since January 1 of this year up to March 2, 2013, 244 defendants have been released into the Pretrial Services program to be supervised.  This doesn’t include the defendants ordered into the Pretrial Diversion program, Alternative Community Service program or Probation – all supervised by the Community Corrections Unit.

On the other hand, the private commercial bail industry has been proven to be the most effective and efficient system of pretrial release – and we use no taxpayer funds.  Commercial bail offers many layers of financial commitments and thus accountability in the criminal justice system: the insurance company as surety on the bond; a bail agent’s contract with the insurance company; the bail agent’s own funds with the insurance company; and third-party indemnitors on the bond.

The commercial bail industry has the lowest failure to appear and recidivism rates of any other jail release method.  And if someone does fail to appear, we cover the costs of getting that defendant back to the court’s jurisdiction and not the taxpayer.

If these releases don’t make you angry, take some time to review more of the jail’s releases on your tax dollars.  The Clerk of Court can direct you on how to obtain the registries with all of the release information.  

If these releases do anger you, speak up and let your county commissioners know how you feel about your tax dollars being spent to “supervise” defendants who were arrested for a criminal offense.  Budget work sessions are already being scheduled and your tax dollars only go so far.

Public policy affects public safety.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Orange County, Florida Jail's Community Corrections Unit

For the last several weeks, there have been many news reports and articles on the Orange County, Florida jail’s home confinement program.

Some of the most quotable quotes include the following:

The judge may have revoked the home confinement, but we’ll never know because he was never told.”   Chief Judge Belvin Perry, Jr., Ninth Judicial Circuit

My concern is that there is potentially a development of a culture of complacency that just cannot be tolerated when we are talking about public safety.”  Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs

Nobody has given me an explanation I’m satisfied with, which is why we are suspending the program [home confinement] and seven people have been reassigned.”  Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs

Since they are not monitoring you anyway, I’m not sure what you are paying for.”  Circuit Judge Janet Thorpe, Ninth Judicial Circuit

Home confinement is not home confinement . . . I think all the judges in the Ninth Circuit . . . [are] concerned about what the courts’ perception [is] about what home confinement was compared with what it is.”  Circuit Judge Alan Apte, Ninth Judicial Circuit

Internal notes even reflect grave concerns with the home confinement program.  And the man in charge, Corrections Chief Michael Tidwell, said he was never made aware of any problems with home confinement.  As asked by Kathi Belich with Channel 9 news, “You don’t know if there’s a culture of complacency at your own jail?  If you don’t who does?

However, home confinement is not the jail’s only program that should have a thorough review.

The other pretrial monitoring program the Community Corrections unit is responsible for is the pretrial release program, which Accredited Surety has been monitoring routinely and which we have shared our concerns about with the Orange County Board of County Commissioners and County Administrator staff and the Chief Judge of the Ninth Judicial Circuit.

The pretrial release program is funded by tax dollars to the tune of approximately $2.8 million for fiscal year 2013.  The program budget is divided into two parts:

  • $1.4 million for inmate identification, court information and release processing  
  • $1.4 million for post-release supervision

Let us help you understand the program from a lay person’s perspective:

You are arrested for the following offense(s), you may or may not have a criminal history and you may or may not be indigent:  

  • Driving under the influence
  • Grand theft 3rd degree 
  • Battery domestic violence
  • Tampering with witness to hinder communication to law enforcement
  • Child abuse and neglect
  • Battery by strangulation domestic violence
  • Aggravated battery with deadly weapon domestic violence
  • Possession of cocaine
  • Violation of probation
  • Aggravated battery great bodily harm domestic violence
  • And, many more

If you have not bonded out on a cash bond or through a bail agent within 24 hours, you then go before the judge for your “initial appearance” where the facts of the case will be reviewed and your release mechanism decided. 

In all of the examples above (and many more), the defendants arrested for these crimes were released on taxpayer dollars to be “supervised” by the Community Corrections unit.  Your tax dollars are paying for this release regardless of whether or not the defendant has been declared indigent or whether they can afford their own release.  Many of these defendants have lengthy criminal histories, failures to appear and have been able to pay for their own release in the past. 

We now know what level of “supervision” defendants on home confinement received; well the pretrial release program is even less.

When a defendant is placed on pretrial release their level of supervision is to call-in to an automated telephone answering machine once a week or month; rarely is there any one-on-one supervision. 

In monitoring releases, we noticed that almost every defendant arrested for a domestic violence related offense and who attends an initial appearance session, is released by a judge on the taxpayer’s expense into the pretrial release program.  Domestic violence offenses continue to be one of the most dangerous crimes committed and the purpose for recently reconvening the Domestic Violence/Child Abuse Commission.  Accredited was so alarmed by the number of defendants charged with domestic violence that were being released with no accountability and who could potentially return immediately to the victim, that we sent an analysis to the Chief Judge for his review.   From August 5-December 22, 2012 alone, 257 defendants arrested for domestic violence related offenses were released to the pretrial release program; 76 so far up to March 2, 2013.

Prior to 2009, jail staff was allowed to release defendants “administratively” into the pretrial release program with no judicial oversight.  Through Accredited’s analysis showing that defendants with serious charges and lengthy criminal histories were being released by lay staff, the Board of Orange County Commissioners had a detailed worksession on the program and expressed grave concern regarding defendants being released by jail staff – which the county commission would be liable for if a defendant committed a heinous crime.  The Chief Judge ultimately revoked this “administrative” process once again requiring that only a judge could make this judicial release decision.

If you are going to have a government-funded supervision program using limited and critical tax dollars, it should be run effectively and be routinely audited to make sure it is efficient and puts public safety first.  However, once these huge bureaucratic programs are in place with large staffing models, the will to disband them is hard to seek.

Mayor Jacobs is applauded for having the National Institute of Corrections conduct an overall review of the Community Corrections’ programs – this is the time to analyze what programs are effective and those that aren’t and make the necessary cuts if needed.  The taxpayers deserve such review.

Public policy affects public safety.