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.


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