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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

THE PRETRIAL SYSTEM: A TALE OF TWO COUNTIES

- How two neighboring Tampa Bay counties offer distinctly different approaches for processing accused criminals.

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Whenever there is a controversial government program that could possibly be construed as politically charged, there is a tendency by the powers that be to either camouflage it from view or portray it as an innocuous issue, something having no direct impact on the public. Such is the case with the pretrial system as implemented by law enforcement departments throughout the country. The intent of the system is to reduce the jail population, thereby saving the taxpayer money without creating an adverse effect on the crime rate. The only problem is, it hasn't quite worked out that way.

In the past, whenever a person was arrested, the accused is either incarcerated in jail or, depending on the situation, released under his own recognizance (aka "ROR", free) or allowed to post bail. There are essentially two aspects for a judge to consider when setting bail: a person's flight risk, and whether he/she presents a threat to the community. Bail bondsmen can be contracted by the accused to post bail, monitor their whereabouts, and assure they return to court. Such an arrangement costs the taxpayer virtually nothing. However, under the new pretrial system, government workers evaluate the accused and make arrangements to have them released ROR, thereby saving money by minimizing the jail population. Under this scenario, taxpayers pay for workers who, unlike the bail bondsmen, do not keep tabs on the accused, nor assures they return for their court appearance. Not surprising, under the pretrial system, there is a rise of cases where the accused fails to return to court. As a result, the backlog of warrants is growing at an alarming rate. Not surprising, bail bondsmen have a better success rate in terms of returning the accused to court on time and keeping them out of trouble.

The real test of the pretrial system can probably best be measured by comparing two neighboring counties in the Tampa Bay metropolitan area of Florida, Pinellas and Pasco. Whereas Pinellas has embraced a form of the pretrial system, Pasco created somewhat of a controversy in 2009 when they spurned conventional wisdom and abandoned their program altogether. Pasco may be geographically larger than Pinellas, but Pinellas is more than double its size in terms of population. Not surprising, Pinellas has a budget approximately 2.5 times that of Pasco's, and twice as many arrests. While Pinellas' population has plateaued shy of one million people, Pasco's has increased sharply and is now in excess of 425,000 people.

Pasco supported the pretrial system for over fourteen years before budget cuts forced them to re-examine the program and conclude they could no longer afford it. This allowed them to preserve jobs by re-assigning deputies from the pretrial system to the streets. Without such a program in place, this should have theoretically caused the jail population to grow dramatically. In fact, it didn't, and it remains flat much to the surprise of pretrial proponents. To illustrate:

Average Daily Pasco County Jail Population(1)
2010 - 1362 inmates
2011 - 1359 inmates
2012 - 1365 inmates

In Florida, 35 county Sheriff offices (out of 67) have accredited pre-trail systems. Unfortunately, this does not include Pinellas County. Interestingly, the Police Departments in Clearwater, Largo, and St. Petersburg, all of which reside within Pinellas, are accredited(2). This means the Pinellas program does not follow standard procedures as found elsewhere in the state (and county). With an active pretrial system in place though, the jail population should be in decline. In fact, it isn't, and is actually growing instead. To illustrate:

Average Daily Pinellas County Jail Population(3+4)
2010 - 3187 inmates
2011 - 3169 inmates
2012 - 3502 inmates

The pre-trail system should also not contribute to the crime rate, and although it is difficult to find data pertaining to ROR cases specifically, arrests in Pinellas County dropped from 50.9K to 45.8K (-10.1%) over the last two years. Not to be outdone, Pasco County's arrests have also declined from 14.8K to 13.5K (-8.8%) over the last couple of years, not bad for a county where the population is growing sharply(5). Further, there are approximately 20,000 outstanding warrants in Pasco County(1), at least three times less than Pinellas (60K-70K).

Although reducing the county jail population may save the taxpayer money, it still costs money to run such programs. A pretrial system for a large county such at Pinellas can cost upwards of two million dollars or more(6). In contrast, since Pasco County cancelled their pretrial system, with no apparent adverse effects, they have saved budget money which has been applied to other endeavors. In terms of Pinellas County though, the taxpayer should question the amount of money being spent on their unaccredited pretrial program. Is the pretrial money in the budget being properly allocated? Again, it costs the taxpayers virtually nothing to use bail bondsmen who assume all of the risk and assure the accused appears in court on time.

Between the Pasco and Pinellas examples, the evidence would suggest the pretrial system doesn't work. When Pasco dropped their pretrial system, people worried their jail population would mushroom and the crime rate would escalate. The reality is that neither materialized, and they saved money to boot. Pinellas cannot claim the same as they followed a different path.

Critics argue pretrial represents another instance of government invasiveness, creating another layer of bureaucratic red tape at the expense of bail bondsmen who normally perform this function. In addition, the effectiveness of such programs is questionable when you consider those released on their own recognizance are failing to appear to court, and are are getting into additional trouble while awaiting trial.

The reality though is that it is not a matter of choosing one approach over another, pretrial versus bail bondsmen. There is actually room for both if the county is so inclined and can define the parameters properly. Counties could possibly use volunteers to perform pretrial functions, thereby saving additional costs to the taxpayer. If pretrial programs are to continue, they should certainly be accredited in order to bring uniformity to the process thereby opening the door for effective statistical analysis.

The pretrial system is one of those gray areas the public is generally unfamiliar with, which is probably how proponents like it. Ignorance is bliss. But if the public really understood the problem, they would question the motives of the people supporting it, and ask why they cannot implement a program similar to Pasco County's. Those who ridicule the Pasco decision to abandon the pretrial system either do not understand the facts or are trying a political sleight of hand to divert attention away from their success. Whatever reason, the general public and media would be wise to become conversant in pretrial release.

Keep the Faith!

1-Pasco County Sheriff's office
2-Florida Accreditation
3-Pinellas Jail stats
4-Pinellas Jail data
5-FDLE - Florida County Profiles
6-There are no budget figures available to substantiate the exact cost of Pinellas' pretrial system.

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Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at timb001@phmainstreet.com

For Tim's columns, see:   timbryce.com

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Copyright © 2012 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.