Pretrial Services

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

The case of Carlos Ramirez presents another disturbing example. On March 12, Ramirez was arrested and charged with strong-arm robbery. Police believe he was a key member of a well-organized gang known as the "Rolex Bandits" that preyed on well-dressed elderly people in exclusive South Dade neighborhoods. At his bond hearing he was released - without posting any bail - under the supervision of Pretrial Services.

At 2:00 p.m. on April 7 Ramirez allegedly tried to rip the gold Rolex watch from the arm of an elderly man in Coconut Grove. Police say that when the man's son-in-law rushed to his aid, Ramirez pulled a gun and fired at point-blank range. The bullet missed. Ramirez was later arrested and charged with attempted first-degree murder. He is in jail, waiting for a trial date.

"It's really a vexation to the spirit," says Pam Thomas, an assistant state attorney in the felony division who worked on the Ramirez case. "It's like the old revolving door thing - they get arrested one night, they're released by Pretrial Services the next day, and then they're arrested again a few days later."

Until the mid-1960s, the bail system was a central element of the American criminal justice process. At the discretion of each judge, criminal defendants were given the option of posting bond or sitting in jail while awaiting the disposition of their cases. In allowing the release of a defendant, a judge set a monetary bail amount he felt was sufficient to ensure that the defendant would return for his court date. But during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, civil-rights activists argued that indigent defendants were the victims of discrimination, and that one's ability to pay should not be a condition of release from jail pending trial. "The original intention behind [pretrial release] was a good one," says Gary Whitice of Whitice Bail Bonds and the president of the Dade County Bail Bondsmen's Association. "It was to help indigent people charged with nonviolent-type crimes. It was for people who couldn't afford to post bond, couldn't afford to pay a bondsman, and who otherwise might have just sat in jail."

As a result of newly enacted federal laws, locally funded public service organizations began to sprout up around the country to assist with the release of indigent defendants in lieu of bond. In 1966 such a program was created in Dade County, and Thomas Petersen, fresh out of law school and a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) worker, moved to Miami to operate the program in the Office of the Public Defender.

In the early years, recalls Petersen, who is now a Dade County circuit court judge in the juvenile division, the program was careful about who was released, and 97 percent of the defendants under pretrial supervision showed up for their court dates. "There was really an art form to keeping track of these people," Petersen recalls. "We learned where they hung out and where they would go, and then we'd run down alleys and into bars to find them. We felt personally responsible and personally accountable for getting these people back in court. And I knew if they didn't return [to court], I looked bad. And if I looked bad, I lost my job."

Petersen didn't lose his job, but in 1971 he left to take a position with the State Attorney's Office. A year later, when control of the Pretrial Services Bureau was transferred from the the Public Defender to the Dade County Corrections and Rehabilitation Department (which is supervised by the county manager's office), Petersen's boss loaned him out to oversee the transition and operation of the program. He continued to serve in an advisory capacity with the bureau until 1976.

Pretrial Services didn't change much - and didn't receive much attention - throughout the Seventies. But in 1983, as the county's shortage of jail space approached crisis levels, Corrections and Rehabilitation hired an ex-Marine, Tim Murray, to head the bureau. Murray, who had been the director of pretrial services in Washington, D.C. and had served as a pretrial-release consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice, came to Miami armed with two weapons that would alter forever the way Dade County viewed its pretrial-release program: 1) a firm grasp of recent changes in the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure, requiring judges to consider the option of pretrial-release programs for all defendants regardless of their financial status; and 2) a strong personal belief that the long-held practice of requiring monetary bail for release before trial created an inherent inequality of justice. "This republic has been based on one tenet," says Murray, now the director of Dade's Office of Substance Abuse Control. "It says on the Supreme Court building in Washington, `Equal Justice Under Law.' But there can be no equal justice under a money-bail system unless everyone has an equal amount of money."

With Murray's arrival, Pretrial Services began to grow. In 1985 the program accepted 11,000 felony defendants. By 1988 that figure had jumped to nearly 21,000. In 1990 23,443 people were freed under pretrial release. Today the bureau employs 63 full-time staffers, with an annual budget of $2.5 million in county funds. And somewhere along the way - no one, including Murray or current director Russell Buckhalt, can say exactly where - the function of the program took a radical turn. No longer is the bureau a public-advocacy program for indigent and low-income defendants who would have trouble posting bond. Above all, Pretrial Services is now considered to be a mechanism for easing jail overcrowding - a safety valve for the corrections system.

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