Friday, April 19, 2013

Violent vs. Non-Violent Offenders: who remains in jail and why

There is a false public perception that jails across the country are overcrowded with people who have committed non-violent crimes and remain in jail simply because they can’t afford a bail bond.

A recent article published online in and the Burlington County Times cited a report that found that 40 percent of inmates in the New Jersey jail system remain in jail because they can’t afford bail.  The study was conducted by the Drug Policy Alliance and the national organization Luminosity, both jail reform advocates.

Marie VanNorstrand, a senior consultant with Luminosity, Inc., a criminal justice consulting firm specializing in the pretrial stage of the criminal justice system, authored the report.  Ms. VanNorstrand has also been a consultant for the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies (NAPSA) and the Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI), two national organizations who have called for the elimination of commercial bail.  It is no wonder her report advocated a taxpayer-funded pretrial release system over a financial release system.

She is quoted as saying, “The decision to release or detain a person pending trial must be based on the risk the defendant poses to the community and of failing to appear in court.  A pretrial system that provides limited or no alternatives to monetary bail often results in the detention of low-risk individuals who lack resources and the release of high-risk individuals who have resources.”

The Times article stated that Burlington County in New Jersey has been able to avoid jail overcrowding by being extremely proactive in their approach to the jail and inmates.  The Burlington County jail like some other jails across the country, also now accepts credit cards for bail.

A defendant “languishes” in jail because they can’t afford to post a small premium (usually 10-15 percent of the total bond) with a bail agent but they will charge the full amount of the bond on a credit card and pay the non-refundable fees for the transaction?  They have to be informed they will lose the full bond money if they fail to appear.

Why is this type of financial bail acceptable to proponents of taxpayer-funded pretrial release systems when posting bail with a bail agent is not?  Why are they not calling for an elimination of this type of financial release?

Jails get a percentage of all bail bonds paid by credit cards from the private vendor managing the process who makes money off a contract with the jail; are the jails and the private vendor then not considered a, “for profit entity,” as commercial bail is?

How does this establish accountability in the criminal justice system if anyone, both defendants charged with violent and non-violent offenses, can just swipe a credit card for release?

What happens when a defendant who posted their bond by credit card fails to appear?  No one will look for the defendant – not the jail or the private credit card vendor.  It will fall to already overworked law enforcement agencies at more taxpayer expense.

Violent vs. non-violent crime

Non-violent crimes are generally those that do not involve the use of any force or injury to another person.  The seriousness of a non-violent crime is usually measured in terms of economic damage or loss to the victim.  Most non-violent crimes involve some sort of property crime such as larceny or theft.

Violent crimes involve the use of force or injury to the body of another person.  The seriousness of a violent crime is usually determined by the degree of physical harm caused to the victim.  

Non-violent offenses may include:
  • Most property crimes, such as theft, embezzlement, and receipt of stolen goods, arson
  • Fraud, tax crimes, or other “white collar” crimes
  • Drug and alcohol-related crimes
  • Prostitution
  • Racketeering and gambling
  • Bribery
Violent crimes may include:
  • Assault and battery
  • Homicides, including first/second degree murder and manslaughter
  • Domestic violence
  • Robbery (theft through the use of force)
  • Sexual assault and abuse crimes
  • False imprisonment
In Florida, dangerous crimes are defined in F.S. 907.041(4)(a) and include the following offenses:
  • Arson; 
  • Aggravated assault or battery;
  • Illegal use of explosives;
  • Child abuse or aggravated child abuse;
  • Abuse of an elderly person or disabled adult, or aggravated abuse of an elderly person or disabled adult;
  • Aircraft piracy;
  • Kidnapping;
  • Homicide;
  • Manslaughter;
  • Sexual battery;
  • Robbery;
  • Carjacking;
  • Lewd, lascivious, or indecent assault or act upon or in presence of a child under the age of 16 years;
  • Sexual activity with a child, who is 12 years of age or older but less than 18 years of age, by or at solicitation of person in familial or custodial authority; 
  • Burglary of a dwelling;
  • Stalking and aggravated stalking;
  • Act of domestic violence: assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, aggravated stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family or household member by another family or household member
  • Home invasion robbery;
  • Act of terrorism as defined in s. 775.30;
  • Manufacturing any substances in violation of chapter 893 or attempting to conspire to commit such crime.
So do defendants charged with violent or dangerous crimes only get released on financial means while defendants charged with non-violent crimes just remain in jail?  If you think yes, you would be wrong.

Taxpayer-funded release systems supervise both violent and non-violent offenders; sometimes defendants are released and supervised without even having seen a judge.  Usually defendants are required to pay for drug screenings or treatment and submit to electronic monitoring.  Supervision is supposed to be provided to, “keep tabs on,” these defendants.  Again, monitoring is only as good as those doing the monitoring.

As an example, the home confinement program in the Orange County, FL jail was suspended by Mayor Teresa Jacobs.  Two internal reports found that program supervisors and staff violated the jail’s policies and procedures and failed to address warning flags and curfew violations of a defendant who has been charged with the murder of Alex Zaldivar.  The Chief and Deputy Chief of Corrections submitted their resignations.

Yet, the Orange County, FL jail is still running a taxpayer-funded supervision program in our community that is less stringent than the home confinement program should have been. 

Defendants are being released for both misdemeanor and felony offenses, non-violent and violent offenses, many have lengthy criminal histories, some with failures to appear and violations of probation, many are not indigent and many have been able to pay for financial release for previous arrests.

Domestic violence crimes are rising all over the country and in Orange County, FL.  In fact the Domestic Violence/Child Abuse Commission was recently reconvened to address these crimes and solutions to combat them.  Yet each week defendants charged with domestic violence related crimes simply walk out of the jail at taxpayers’ expense.  Does such a release with no financial accountability instill in the defendant that their crime is taken seriously?  What does the victim of domestic violence think?

The bail industry does not make release decisions for those arrested for a crime; we agree the release decision should be based on a defendant’s flight risk and the danger they pose to the community.  Conducting a risk assessment is important and bail agents do so for every bond written. 
A bail bond guarantees appearance – at the bail agent’s expense and not the taxpayers.  Taxpayer-funded programs just pass on the costs for failure to appear back to the taxpayer.  Despite false claims that bail agents pass up defendants with low bonds, these very bonds are often the, “bread and butter,” that sustains their bail business.   

If people “languish” in jail because they can’t afford financial release and they truly are not a danger to the community, a judge always has the authority to release that person on their own recognizance and save the cost of incarceration.

The commercial bail industry has always stressed that there is a role for both financial and non-financial release in the criminal justice system.  To be effective and responsible with taxpayer dollars, taxpayer-funded release systems should help those defendants charged with non-violent crimes and who are first-time offenders.  Targeting these defendants would keep them from, “languishing,” in jail and increasing incarceration costs to the taxpayers as is stated to be the current situation in jails all over the country.  Jails should also petition judges to release defendants on their own recognizance if necessary and appropriate. 

However, releasing defendants charged with violent and dangerous crimes, who have prior criminal histories, failures to appear or violations of probation on the taxpayer’s dime has a direct impact on public safety.  At least financial bail instills some accountability on the part of the defendant and with a bail bond, the responsibility of third-party indemnitors.

The commercial bail industry is very interested in improving public safety in our communities and using our tax dollars wisely.  After all - we are taxpayers too.  We gladly want to be a part of efforts to expand ways of reducing jail overcrowding and holding perpetrators accountable.  We are a, “legacy industry,” with a proven business model and a centuries-long track record of efficiency and effectiveness.  

Private competition can be a good thing as long as it protects the community.  Government should have checks and balances in place to ensure they are using public resources efficiently.  And using private commercial bail to help release individuals from jail to keep jail populations in-check and holding defendants accountable for appearance for the court is a good move.

Imagine what our criminal justice system – and the taxpayer’s bank – would look like if all financial release was eliminated and every defendant was released via a risk assessment to be supervised by government employees?

All of us deserve an accountable and equitable system.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Top Resignations at the Orange County, FL Jail

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs held a press conference yesterday to announce the release of two internal reports regarding the investigation in to the suspended Home Confinement program at the jail and the overall Community Corrections Division.

She also announced that Deputy Chief Jill Hobbs and Corrections Chief Michael Tidwell have tendered their resignations coinciding with the release of the internal reports.  Chief Tidwell will remain temporarily to transition to new leadership.

Both internal investigations focused on the actions and practices of the Home Confinement program and the results of both reports indicate that there were violations of the jail's policies and procedures regarding the program.

The internal reports found that practices within the Home Confinement program were accepted/condoned by the Unit supervisor, all of which failed to address the various warning flags particularly in the Bessman Okafor case.  In Okafor's case one of the internal reports found that:
  • Staff failed to address nighttime and weekend alerts in a timely manner or at times not addressing them at all;
  • Staff failed to conduct administrative hearings when excessive violations occurred;
  • Staff were instructed by the Unit supervisor to minimize the number of administrative hearings and to reduce revocations to 'keep the numbers up' regarding caseloads;
  • Staff failed to ever confirm with the defendant's phone provider that phone problems created alerts as claimed by the defendant;
  • Staff failed to file an order to revoke Okafor's release when he committed a new offense for a failure to appear in Polk County in August 2012, stating that active warrants are not considered to be a new offense; and
  • The Unit supervisor agreeing that staff were not handling excessive alerts in accordance with policy yet giving these same staff continuous 100 percent accuracy ratings during monthly audits.
As a result of the internal investigations, two Senior Community Corrections Officers, the Unit supervisor and the Deputy Chief of Corrections were found to have committed numerous policy violations.

Per Mayor Jacobs, these individuals and any others who are alleged to have violated or ignored policies and procedures will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.

Mayor Jacob stressed her deep commitment to public safety and stated she has assured Chief Judge Belvin Perry, Jr. that the Orange County Jail will have space to house anyone who might be a threat to our community.

We are glad to hear that the county is working with the judiciary to establish a framework to determine who should be eligible for pretrial supervision at the taxpayer's expense.  

A fact that cannot be changed: bad people will continue to do bad things.  We cannot always change or stop that.  

What we can do is work more closely as partners in the criminal justice system.  Community supervision is a tool just as a bail bond is a tool to hold perpetrators accountable.  Just as bail agents must assess the risk of a defendant to determine the posting of bond, anyone released in to a community supervision program must have a thorough risk assessment as well.  And those individuals charged with any responsibility for that defendant must do their job effectively.

Commercial bail ensures appearance of a defendant at court and saves taxpayers millions of dollars annually.  We would welcome the opportunity to partner with the county and the courts in a team effort to promote public safety and the wise use of taxpayer dollars.  

It will be a new day at Orange County Corrections and a refreshing one.