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December 18, 2008 Thursday
Broward County bail bondsmen want to kill pretrial intervention, and the County Commission is willing to help
BYLINE: Bob Norman
LENGTH: 1615 words
Broward County has a history of packing its jails with destitute inmates -- so much so that it remains under a 1995 federal order to keep crowding to a minimum.
The solution to the problem has been a pretrial release program that releases low-risk, mostly indigent inmates and monitors them, sometimes with GPS technology. The program, according to almost everyone in the business of public safety in Broward, has been a great success.
It has helped keep the jail at manageable population levels, saving the county millions in incarceration costs.
At a recent meeting, however, Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman made a startling suggestion: She said that it may be time to kill the program, willfully violate the federal order, and overcrowd the jail system with inmates again.
The commissioner said she wanted a "cost-benefit" analysis to see if it would be cheaper for the tenth-largest jail system in America to violate the order and pay federal fines of $1,000 a day or more than continue to fund the release program.
"When I look at what we would pay if the jail were overcapacity versus what we're paying for the program, we're probably better off letting the jail be overcapacity, and we'll save more money that way," Lieberman said during the November 13 commission meeting.
The idea is outrageous. Not only does Lieberman endorse violating the law, but her idea would also add tens of millions of dollars in jail costs for housing the extra inmates and likely prompt the feds to force Broward County to build a new $70 million jail. On top of that, it would leave hundreds of inmates, most of them simply too poor to post a small bond, to rot in jail for no good reason.
Yet Lieberman isn't alone on the commission in at least wanting to cut some of the funding for the program, even as the Broward Sheriff's Office, State Attorney's Office, Public Defenders Office, and Clerk of the Court oppose the idea.
In fact, an ordinance has been proposed to limit the program that will be discussed at a public hearing next month.
The question: Who got to Lieberman and the rest of the commissioners?
The answer: A lobbyist. Of course.
Book has been hired by the Broward County Bail Bondsmen Association to hobble the pretrial release program, which right now is monitoring about 2,200 criminal defendants. The program, after all, puts a dent in the bail bonds business. Most of the inmates chosen for the program get out of jail on their own recognizance - which of course doesn't require posting a bond.
Book's ordinance would preclude non-indigent inmates from participating. Currently, they make up about 40 percent of the program. A second version has been hammered out that singles out only non-indigent inmates who have committed dangerous crimes or have a history of missing court dates. The change would force them to pay a bond to get out of jail and, ultimately, force more people facing trial to sit in jail.
And it would also allow bail bondsmen to get their hands into more pockets.
"The people that work in the system, that run the system, whose mission is justice and equal justice, say, 'Don't do this,'" Finkelstein told the commission during the November 13 meeting. "Mr. Book says, 'Do it.' And we're going to do it? Don't sell out the justice system."
Of course, that's not how the industry describes the effort. Veteran Fort Lauderdale bondsman Wayne Spath, who is a member of the county's public safety advisory board, says it's all about "accountability."
"I make them go to court," he said of criminal defendants. "And we think the program should concentrate on indigent people. Don't give people who can afford it a get-out-of-jail-free card."
Spath is a businessman, and you can't begrudge him and his brethren for trying to write more jail bonds. And there are surely some advantages to having bondsmen keeping track of the defendants.
But the facts don't seem to back up his assertion that the pretrial release program isn't accountable.
The program, which was expanded last January with an infusion of $2.7 million in county money, has worked smoothly, says Kristina Gulick, who heads BSO's Department of Community Control. She says that only one to four percent of the 5,700 inmates who have gone through the program in the last year absconded, depending on how you count them.
"People don't understand that you either have this program or you have to build a new jail," she says. "For the bondsmen, it's in their playbook. Their national associations have print-out material on how to beat pretrial agencies. They do this all over the country. They tried to do it in Miami-Dade but were unsuccessful. Unfortunately, it's a competitor's game."
Gulick recounts statistics with ease. The program costs a total of about $6 million a year - after the county expanded it by $2.7 million last January. On average, there are 2,200 criminal defendants being monitored by the program on any given day. Jailing them would cost $115 a day -- or about $42,000 a year each. That's $92 million worth of jail time saved over the last year alone.
On top of that, the program accomplished its mission: keeping our jails uncrowded. The 5,622-bed system, which includes five jails, generally runs at 90 percent capacity. Last Wednesday, for instance, there were 5,207 people incarcerated, according to Gulick.
Limiting the program would lead to higher jail populations -- and those who did get out would have to go through Book's clients, the bail bondsmen.
And don't worry, the bondsmen aren't starving. The percentage of inmates that bond out of jail is still at about 28 percent, says Gulick, a slight rise over last year.
So why is this even an issue?
Book not only works for the commission, but he also has poured literally hundreds of thousands of dollars into campaign accounts. A look at just the last election shows that his wife, his daughter, and his lobbying firm contributed a total of $10,000 to four sitting commissioners - Ilene Lieberman, John Rodstrom, Josephus Eggelletion, and Stacy Ritter.
Think about it. Book collects $50,000 from taxpayers and recycles a fifth of it back into commissioners' accounts. See how that works?
The bail bonds industry pumped in a few thousand to the four campaigns as well, just for good measure.
Book's history representing the bail bond industry hasn't been without controversy. In 1999, he played a role in tacking on a provision to a crime bill that made it illegal for defendants charged with violent crimes to participate in pretrial release programs. Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed the provision after it was discovered that such a move would cost jails across the state tens of millions of dollars, including an extra $4 million to $7 million for Broward County alone.
Book publicly apologized to the Broward County Commission that year for pushing a measure detrimental to the county while he was being paid by taxpayers to lobby for its interests in Tallahassee. "Let me formally apologize," he said to the commission. "I did not know it would cost anybody money."
For his part, Book says Gulick's statistics are "lies." He says the low rate of absconding by those in the pretrial program is basically an accounting trick. Book also complains that the program has been taking in violent criminals that shouldn't get the privilege.
"Don't buy their bullshit," says Book, who is very good at what he does. "They are trying to dupe you. Don't let them. Everybody knows that pretrial release services have been taking people it shouldn't, child molesters, drug users, batteries on law enforcement officers, burglaries of occupied dwellings, not once, not twice -- thousands of cases."
That's true -- but the funny thing is that Book doesn't oppose allowing those defendants to bond out through his clients.
The truth, according to numerous officials and lawyers, is that no horror stories have emerged about rampages by defendants who are monitored under pretrial release in Broward or several other counties where pretrial release programs are utilized.
The system might not be broke, but that hasn't stopped several commissioners from following Brook's lead and trying to fix it. Commissioner Lieberman, a longtime Book friend who is closer to him than any other commissioner, has been the strongest advocate, as her contemptible pronouncement about violating the federal order indicates.
But she isn't alone. Several commissioners, all of whom have been lobbied heavily on the issue by Book, appear to favor the measure, including Mayor Stacy Ritter and Rodstrom, who said he has met with Book and bail bondsmen on the issue and believes the cost of the program must be reduced.
Commissioner Kristin Jacobs was the only commissioner to speak out against the Book ordinance at the November 13 meeting.
It's due for a public hearing next month, where Finkelstein hopefully won't be alone this time in railing against it.
"This is about bondsmen having a secure income stream and they are trying to achieve it because their lobbyist isn't just at his job, but he works for the county commission," says the public defender. "To me this is pay to play. I admire and respect Ron Book's abilities, but that doesn't mean the county commission should submit and succumb to him."
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