By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
On February 6 the body of 22-year-old Bridgette Gibbs, sister of City of Miami Police Maj. Arnold Gibbs, was found bobbing in Biscayne Bay, just off NE 22nd Terrace. Nude from the waist down, the woman's hands were tied behind her back, her face wrapped tightly with duct tape. That day her terrified boyfriend told police the harrowing tale of how they were robbed, kidnapped, tied up, and thrown into the trunk of a car. The boyfriend, who played dead, managed to get himself free after he was thrown into a canal. Bridgette Gibbs died from a combination of drowning and suffocation.
Nearly a month earlier, on the morning of Saturday, January 12, Cornell Austin, a 21-year-old Miami man with a long history of violence, had been arrested on felony charges of cocaine possession and two misdemeanor charges of marijuana possession and gambling. It wasn't his first brush with the law. In the previous five years he had been arrested, convicted, and sentenced four separate times - for carrying a concealed firearm, robbery by force, possession of cocaine, and assault on a law-enforcement officer. For Austin, the January arrest turned out to be a minor inconvenience. When he appeared at his bond hearing the following Monday morning, the county's Pretrial Services Bureau - a taxpayer-funded program designed to facilitate the release of felony defendants who are awaiting trial - recommended that Austin's $6500 bond be waived and he be released under the program's supervision. The judge agreed, and less than an hour later Austin was back on the street.
Cornell Austin was not well supervised, and he would not be free for long. On February 15, Austin was arrested and charged with the first-degree murder of Bridgette Gibbs. Along with five suspected accomplices, he's now in jail, waiting for his case to come to
The story of Cornell Austin is not unique. Of approximately 55,000 people arrested and charged with felonies in Dade County every year, more than 20,000 are released under the aegis of Pretrial Services while awaiting trial. Statistics compiled by the U.S. Justice Department indicate that more than one out of every four of those defendants fail to show up for court hearings. In addition, an uncountable number are released before authorities are able to positively identify them. Critics of Dade's pretrial-release program - veteran police officers, criminal prosecutors, and even some judges - say that during the past half-dozen years, the Pretrial Services Bureau has become a model of bureaucratic inefficiency, unable to function properly in its attempt to fulfill two mandates: ensure the due-process rights of defendants; and relieve the chronic overcrowding that plagues local jails.
Dade County has a deceptively simple system for dealing with felony defendants. After being booked into jail, those charged with less-serious offenses (possession of cocaine, burglary, or aggravated assault, for example) can be released immediately by posting a standard monetary bond set by state guidelines for each offense. If the defendant is unable to post the standard bond himself, he can pay a bail bondsman to do it for him. (Bondsmen normally charge a ten percent commission and demand sufficient collateral.) If the defendant later fails to appear for court hearings, the full bond is forfeited and placed in public coffers.
If the defendant doesn't post the standard bond, or if he is charged with a very serious felony offense such as homicide, manslaughter, or sexual assault, he is brought before a judge. At bond hearings, which are held twice each weekday, a judge determines whether the felony defendant should be released, as well as the conditions of that release. He might raise or lower the standard bond, deny bond altogether, release the individual on his own recognizance, release him with restrictions on travel or other activity, or release him under the supervision of Pretrial Services.
Critics of Dade County's program charge that defendants released to Pretrial Services lack a strong incentive to show up later in court. Unlike defendants released on private bond, who risk losing thousands of dollars or the collateral they offered a bail bondsman (a car or home, for example), those released to Pretrial Services forfeit nothing if they fail to appear for their court hearings.
In addition, critics note that among the thousands of felony defendants released to Pretrial Services each year, many have long criminal histories. People like that, they contend, are high risks and should be kept in jail or be forced to pay a substantial monetary bond. Otherwise the accountability of those defendants borders on nonexistent.
On March 23, for instance, eighteen-year-old Raul Rodriguez was arrested and charged with two counts of strong-arm robbery. Police suspect that Rodriguez - allegedly a member of the notorious street gang "Boys of Brickell" - had participated in a string of drive-by robberies in which he would jump from a car, rip jewelry from the victims, and drive off. At his bond hearing, the standard bond of $10,000 was waived and he was removed from jail under the pretrial-release program.
Two months later, still awaiting trial on the robbery charges, Rodriguez and two friends allegedly walked into Little Havana's popular Malaga restaurant and fatally shot and stabbed a patron. Rodriguez was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery, and kidnapping. He is now in jail.