Alachua, Marion counties take differing approaches to pretrial release
Published: Saturday, June 2, 2012 at 6:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 2, 2012 at 6:24 p.m.
Michael Nadeau's life took a dramatic turn one drunken night in 2010. By the time he came to and appeared in court the morning after his arrest, Gainesville police had charged him with 12 counts, including attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, battery and driving under the influence.
Nadeau spent three months in jail before his attorney convinced an Alachua County judge that he needed alcohol abuse treatment. He spent the next seven months in rehab and now has been released under the supervision of his wife — and the monitoring of an ankle bracelet — while he awaits trial.
If Nadeau had been arrested in Marion County, he wouldn't have had these options. It's likely he'd still be in jail.
The difference is that Alachua County has a formal pretrial release program, while Marion is one of 38 counties in Florida that doesn't fund or sponsor such programs.
Proponents say such programs save counties money by keeping eligible pretrial defendants out of jail. They offer a less expensive alternative to the county lockup while providing treatment options that would be unavailable if the defendant remained behind bars.
Under supervision from court staff and with certain conditions dictated by a judge, the defendants can continue their lives while awaiting trial or some other resolution of their case.
Proponents say there's no increased threat to the community, since such programs handle low-level or nonviolent offenders who have little or no criminal backgrounds.
"It lowers jails costs, it decreases crime while on release, and it assures the community that decision makers have a valid measure of risk for every individual that comes before them," said Timothy Murray, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
Jeff Kilpatrick, the pretrial services supervisor in Alachua County, said keeping someone in jail before trial puts the taxpayer on the hook for jail costs, such as food and shelter. If they are on release, inmates can be out working and earning money. If they are in jail, defendants are more at risk of losing their homes and becoming indigent.
"The data shows that you can't keep everyone locked up," said Kilpatrick, who also chairs the National Association of Pretrial Services Associations.
The State Attorney's Office in Marion County says these kinds of programs are not so cost-effective. Prosecutors say the state has similar programs that come into play once a defendant takes responsibility for his or her charges and the case progresses through the court system.
The state said that those "diversion programs" essentially perform the same functions as pretrial release programs.
Which approach is better? It's an ongoing debate among advocates, defense attorneys and prosecutors across the country. Here, in two neighboring counties, the two sides of the coin are on display.
"It's totally a different situation in Marion County," said Carrie Proctor, a defense attorney who practices in both counties.
There are three options for pretrial release in Alachua County: a defendant can be released on their own recognizance by a judge, post a bond, or be accepted into the pretrial release programs.
Every defendant who comes into the Alachua County system is interviewed within 24 hours by court services staffers, who obtain basic information such as the defendant's residence, employment status and previous record.
The staffers try to verify that information through phone interviews with the defendant's relatives, friends or employers. They also check local, state or national criminal histories.
"We tally everything up and make this composite of this person, and we confer and come up with the best recommendation for this person," said Gerie Crawford, pretrial services manager in Alachua County.
When the defendant appears for his first appearance hearing, the pretrial staff gives a report to the presiding judge based on the background investigation. The staff recommends one of the three release options.
Their decisions aren't arbitrary; staffers follow guidelines for pretrial release mandated by Florida statutes. The recommendations are also based on a holistic understanding of a defendant's criminal history. Those who are typically eligible for pretrial release have little to no criminal backgrounds or haven't committed dangerous crimes.
Each case and defendant is unique. The judge makes the ultimate determination and has no obligation to place a person in a pretrial release program.
Defendants admitted to one of the programs are placed under the supervision of a pretrial release officer, who meets or calls them weekly until the court closes their case. In certain serious cases, such as Nadeau's, a monitoring bracelet on his ankle tracks his every move, and he must remain under the constant supervision of someone approved by the court.
In other cases, people under GPS supervision are allowed to go to work and come home — nothing else. And some defendants undergo a substance abuse evaluation and then get treatment if needed.
In Marion County, a judge either releases the defendant on their own recognizance or requires them to post a monetary bond. If the defendant doesn't have the means to post even a modest bond, he could spend weeks in jail for a minor offense until his case is resolved.
Bonds vary based on the offenses in each case. It was $465,000 for Nadeau.
Experts say the main purpose of bond is to ensure the defendant comes back to court. It's also a tool to keep major offenders off the streets. Oftentimes, though, the opposite is true: It's the major offenders who end up back in society because they have money earned from illegal activities to post bond, while the less serious offenders remain in jail because they're too poor.
Instead of having less serious offenders spend time in jail because they can't afford bond or an attorney to represent them, advocates recommend pretrial release programs, which allow defendants to continue working and provide for their families while their cases move through the justice system. If they are in jail, they risk losing their cars, homes and jobs.
"It's almost criminal to keep someone locked up for 30 days to find out later on that the state dropped their case," said Crawford, the pretrial services manager in Alachua County.
And in some cases, defendants end up with punishments similar to a pretrial release programs anyway.
Dollars and cents
According to a 2011 report by the Florida Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, there were 992 people served by the Alachua County pretrial program in 2010. Of those, 41 committed another offense and 47 failed to appear for a court date while on supervision.
Keeping defendants in jail cost Alachua County about $75.72 on average per day for a single inmate in fiscal year 2011. It costs $5.80 to supervise someone in a pretrial release program.
Based on Alachua County's daily average cost to house an inmate, the 992 defendants would have cost the county $27,416,698 if those defendants spent a year in jail.
According to the OPPGA report, Alachua County spent $943,079 on its pretrial program in 2010.
It costs about $46.52 on average per day to house an inmate in the Marion County jail. There are about 996 inmates in the jail who are unsentenced and await resolution of their cases.
The cost to house those inmates for a year would be $16,911,881. For comparison purposes, if they were all released on supervision in a pretrial program, the cost would be $2,108,532. Of course, not all defendants would qualify for such a program.
The State Attorney's Office in Marion County doesn't see the benefits and savings if Marion instituted a pretrial release program. It would be an additional expense, not an effective cost-saver.
It would take hundreds of thousands of dollars up front to start a program and hire additional workers to run it, said Ric Ridgway, chief assistant state attorney.
"All this does is transfer the costs of the defendant to the taxpayer," he said. "I don't think they (programs) work as effectively as a lot of people say they do."
Ridgway said the programs presuppose that the defendant couldn't otherwise bond out, yet many of them do — making bail bondsmen responsible for their costs and ultimately getting the person back in court.
The state has several diversion programs that come into play once a defendant's case makes it way through the court system.
"We are in effect doing a lot of the same work that you would when you have a pretrial release program," said Bill Gladson, an assistant state attorney in Marion County.
In drug court, for example, if a defendant decides to accept responsibility for his charges and plead guilty, the prosecution or defense attorney can recommend he enter an intensive treatment program. It's a formal process that comes with several conditions but, if completed, could result in dismissed charges.
There's a deferred prosecution program, which is widely used across the state, that screens misdemeanor cases prior to arraignment to determine if the person is eligible for an alternative punishment: community service, drug screens, getting a new driver's license or paying restitution to a victim, for example.
In all these cases, the defendant must plead guilty to the charges before the court offers any of the services.
A success, so far
Nadeau's case is still unresolved, but in the time since an Alachua County judge decided to release him into a rehab program, he's been able to drastically alter his lifestyle and realize his past mistakes.
Before his arrest, he was co-owner of a company that cleaned fuel spills. He lived a comfortable life and considered himself successful. But he had a problem that he would have continued to ignore if he had posted bond or found a way to buy his freedom.
A judge set Nadeau's bond at $465,000. He said if it were set $20,000 or a lesser amount, he would've have paid it for his freedom.
"I would've continued to drink, and I probably would have gone way downhill had I been given that kind of a bond. There's no doubt in my mind," he said.