Pretrial release: Good for defendants, taxpayers
By Robert Zack
As a retired County Court judge, having served 17 of my 21 years on the criminal bench, I would like to commend Sen.Ellyn Bogdanoff for her attempt to rein in a growing problem within our state’s criminal justice system. Bogdanoff has introduced a simple measure that seeks to restrict eligibility of criminal defendants into what is known as “Pretrial Release Services.”
Pretrial release is a government program where defendants can be released into a supervised program until they have their first formal appearance before a judge. These programs were established across America in the 1970s and were originally designed to assist poor and indigent defendants who could not otherwise afford to pay for their own release through a bail bond.
Pretrial release can be a good thing for poor defendants whose lives could be ruined by an extended jail stay before a resolution of the matter pending before the court. It can also be good for taxpayers who don’t have to foot the bill for the cost of room and board in a local jail during the pretrial period.
But what about those defendants who are not poor and can afford to pay for their own release? Why are taxpayers financing their release?
That’s where Bogdanoff’s good idea comes in.
Florida pretrial release programs no longer just serve indigent defendants, as was their original purpose. They have grown to also offer taxpayer-financed release to those who could otherwise foot their own bill.
A report released by the state Office of Program and Policy Analysis & Government Accountability found that such programs cost taxpayers about $1,400 per defendant.
If we are talking about indigent defendants who would otherwise languish in a jail cell, that’s a good deal for taxpayers because housing an inmate in jail can cost far more. But if we are talking about spending $1,400 per defendant for those individuals with the ability to pay their own way out, then it seems that taxpayers are being ripped off.
As proof positive of the unnecessary growth in these programs, Florida has seen a growth of more than 12 percent in just one year (20008 to 2009) even while crime in our state dropped by more than 6 percent.
To be clear, a decrease in crime should mean a decrease – not an increase – in costs related to serving defendants. Instead of spending fewer tax dollars on these programs, we saw a one-year growth of more than $4 million.
The additional good news about Bogdanoff’s bill is that it would have no impact on jail populations, as some fear.
Two recent studies, also released by OPPAGA, found there is no correlation between counties’ occupancy rate and whether or not they have a government-funded pretrial release program.
OPPAGA also studied Pasco County, which eliminated its pretrial release program, and found that it did not appear to affect its jail population.
To clarify, Bogdanoff’s bill does not seek to eliminate pretrial release but merely to exclude those who can pay their own way.
At a time when all levels of government are dealing with shrinking budgets, it is incumbent upon lawmakers to find ways to cut spending without harming vital public services. After reading Bogdanoff’s bill – and ignoring the hyperbole and heightened rhetoric of those who seek to protect the status quo – I am convinced her measure will achieve the goal of reducing spending while keeping needed services intact.
Good for her and good for us.