'We should not put a contingency fee on freedom'
By Norm Kent
I said this site would be straightforward about the issues impacting justice in the courthouse. This is about the many issues generated by the pre trial services controversy.
We have too many people in our jail. Many of these are Broward County citizens awaiting trial who simply cannot afford bail. Either they do not have the premium for the bondsman, or they cannot access sufficient collateral to facilitate their release. Thus, they sit in jail not for their crimes but for their lack of money. That, my friends, is a crime in itself.
If we want to live by the principle of ‘equal justice for all,’ we should not put a contingency fee on freedom. To our credit, a coalition of concerned courthouse personnel, from the sheriff to the public defender and from the courts to the state attorney’s office, have established a process which enables poor people to get out of jail, too.
We call that process the pre trial services division. The Sheriff operates and the county underwrites this supervisory program to monitor indigent inmates released from custody pending trial. Their duty is to ensure that court ordered special requirements of their release are satisfied. It might mean electronic monitoring, drug testing, or counseling, but whatever it is, the plan satisfies the conscience of the court that the freed person is not presenting a further threat to the community. It is individually tailored and stringently managed.
On one hand, it is a costly pain in the ass. The county spends $6 million a year on the program. It is much easier and cheaper for taxpayers to just have inmates bond out and pay bondsmen a fee. But as I have just noted, not everyone can afford to do that.
So what does the county get out of that $6 million, then? First, it delivers a get out of jail card to the poor as well as the wealthy. Second, it lowers the populations in an already overcrowded jail. Third, it makes those jails more manageable and safer. Fourth, by enabling thousands to leave the jail and enter pre trial, it saves the county no less than $44 million a year in the costs of incarceration, which is ten times the cost of pretrial.
Bondsmen do an admirable job of getting defendants to the courthouse on time. They make a decent living. There are even methods that the county could employ to use them to help reduce the jail populations by allowing the county to collateralize and insure shaky bonds. However, the thought of denying inmates access to freedom to enhance that prosperity is abominable and shocking. The thought of allowing them to lobby county commissioners to endorse a proposal which restricts a pretrial services program can only be viewed as self serving.
The county commissioners heard from a lobbyist for the bondsmen this week, and altered the program to make it more palatable for them, while attempting not to restrict the rights of inmates. Nevertheless, the revelations that the lobbyist for the bondsmen is also the very same lobbyist the county commission uses and retains for its own work is a transparent conflict of interest. The county commission should have previously enacted regulations barring anyone that they employ separately on other projects from soliciting or lobbying them on new ones. Their laxity created an inexcusable conflict of interest. They should have refused the lobbyist the opportunity to lobby.
Absent that, in an abundance of caution, and in effort to avoid the appearance of impropriety, they should have refused to endorse the proposals of that lobbyist. They should have explored alternatives which professionals in the criminal justice system have been proposing for months, some of which still can protect and enrich bondsmen while preserving the rights of inmates to access pre trial release.
In summary, even if the bondsmen had a valid argument, it is impaired by the unclean hands their lobbyist brought to the table. Even if the county had a legitimate reason for altering the rules for the pre trial supervision, it is impaired by the unclean hands their votes cast upon the presentation of a lobbyist they separately employed.
The end result of all this is that the county commission comes out of it looking tainted, the bondsmen greedy, the sheriff supplicant, and the system of pre trial release compromised by political chicanery. There is no other way to see it. It is embarrassing and inappropriate.
Welcome to Broward County.
Congratulations to those columnists and journalists in the local media who have pushed this story from the back pages to the limelight, including Mike Mayo, Dan Christensen, and Bob Norman.