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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

PROBLEMS WITH THE PRETRIAL SYSTEM

BRYCE ON CRIME

- Career criminals are slipping through the cracks.

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I haven't been sleeping well lately, and I suspect I'm not alone. We need to believe we are safe in our homes, that law enforcement personnel are patrolling our streets, and the bad guys are being locked up behind bars. Unfortunately, this is not always true as career criminals with long rap sheets are being released rather than incarcerated. Let me explain.

Even though crime rates are declining, there has been a significant increase in jail populations over the years. Not surprising, the cost to imprison suspects in county lockups have skyrocketed, including here in Pinellas County. Reports place it at $126 per prisoner per day. If all arrests resulted in a stay in the county jail, even if it was for just one night, the sheriff would quickly exceed his budget. Consequently, there is an effort to pre-release suspects with lighter offenses. US Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced the start of a new program allowing people arrested for minor drug offenses to be released as opposed to being locked up in jail. This means more and more people are being released under their own recognizance, referred to as "ROR" in the justice system.

The supposition is there is no need to incarcerate people arrested on low-level, nonviolent offenses who are not considered flight risks. Aside from the most serious crimes, such as first-degree murder, bail is set in most cases and intended more as a guarantee the accused will show up for court. However, many poor people arrested for minor crimes cannot afford bail. In addition, the pre-release program is considered a more humane way of treating people, particularly indigents who may have family members depending on them.

This may reduce jail costs and help balance budgets, but there are side effects. The system is certainly not perfect. To illustrate, ROR suspects may decide not to return for trial, thereby costing taxpayers money to reschedule court appearances. They may also flee the county completely, again costing taxpayers to pay for their return. More troubling though is if they are released and cause more mayhem in the community, and herein is where I have trouble sleeping. According to a report by the Florida Legislature OPPAGA (Dec 2012, No. 12-13) on the Pretrial Release Program in 2011, 144 warrants were issued for ROR people failing to appear in court (5.9% of the study), and 160 ROR people were arrested for committing another offense while released (6.6%), for a total of 304 misfits.

Those people who have bonded out of jail, instead of ROR, are more likely to make their court appearances and behave for two reasons; first, the financial incentive to do so, and; second, bail bondsmen are good judges of character. They will not issue a bond to someone they feel are a risk and will not live up to their commitment. The bail bondsmen also keep an eye on their people, something the police do not have time or resources to do.

What concerns me is the criteria by which people are released on their own recognizance, especially if they have a history of prior offenses. I have recently been reviewing Subject Charge Reports from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office which details the history of individual arrests. Such reports are available through the sheriff's web site, "pcsoweb.com". For example, one suspect from Treasure Island was arrested for violation of the pretrial release (failure to appear, a misdemeanor). His prior arrests included domestic battery (multiple), DUI, and other minor offenses. Even though he was released under his own recognizance, he was arrested three days later for violation of pretrial release (again).

In another report, a Largo man was picked up for resisting arrest without violence and was ROR by a judge. The suspect's rap sheet included grand theft auto, reckless driving, possession of just about every illegal narcotic you can imagine, loitering and prowling, driving while license under suspension, and several moving offenses. Yet another report involves a St. Petersburg man picked up for possession of cocaine. His priors include multiple counts of burglary, theft, criminal mischief, and other drug offenses. This is just a handful of examples. I saw dozens more.

I might understand seeing a person released with one or two misdemeanors, but those mentioned here are career criminals with a litany of felonies as well as misdemeanors. By releasing them early, we may be saving a few bucks but, more likely, we are putting the public safety at risk. Case in point, the Melissa Danielle Dohme incident in 2012 where her ex-boyfriend from High School was arrested for battery, only to be ROR where he attacked and stabbed her multiple times. Although the attack was brutal, Melissa somehow miraculously survived. The story highlights the flaws in the pretrial release system.

In 2010, the "Florida Pretrial Misconduct Risk Assessment Instrument" was published which reported on the effect of the pretrial release programs of six Florida counties, including Pinellas. The report concluded by stating the average success rate for the six counties was 87%, meaning the defendants returned for their court appearances and didn't cause any additional problems. Statistically, 87% sounds somewhat successful, but when you consider Pinellas had 3,361 defendants released as part of the program in 2010, this means 436 failed the program. 436 potential time-bombs in our community.

So the question becomes, are these career criminals statistical anomalies or can we do a better job of preventing them from causing more problems. I would like to believe we can do better, beginning with a standard and consistent approach for evaluating prisoners based on industry standards. I would also like to see our judges, who issue the RORs, operate in a consistent and predictable manner. I also believe bail bondsmen can play a more active role, particularly in the screening process of career criminals.

Tightening up the system with some simple, common sense methods, would do a world of good for the system. It would take a harder look at career criminals, reduce the number of problems slipping through the cracks, thereby allowing us to sleep a little sounder at night.

Keep the Faith!

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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 © 2013 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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