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

"Our mandate," confirms Buckhalt, a 22-year veteran of the corrections department who took over Pretrial Services in 1989, "is to assist in the relieving of [jail] overcrowding, and to look at people who can be released on a nonfinancial status."

That reassessment of purpose troubles some early proponents of the initial, need-based mandate. "The program has just gotten too massive," says Judge Petersen. "It's lost its original sense of what it really is supposed to be. Pretrial [release] should exist only for those people who really need it - the indigent and other low-income people."

Under the current system, Pretrial Services officers interview every person arrested on felony charges and taken to the county jail; and at the defendant's bond hearing, typically held only hours after arrest, a bureau worker tells the judge whether the program is willing to accept the defendant. Although no figures are available, bureau director Buckhalt - as well as many bail bondsmen and assistant state attorneys - says that judges normally accept Pretrial Services' recommendations. Once out of jail, the defendant must abide by certain rules. These requirements, determined on an individual basis by bureau workers, typically consist of a weekly "check in" phone call to the Pretrial Services office, occasional counseling sessions, and generally staying out of trouble. Defendants are prohibited to leave the tri-county area (Dade, Broward, and Monroe) without permission.

But Judge Petersen argues that the operation of Pretrial Services entails a dangerous conflict of interest. How can the Corrections Department objectively oversee the jail and the Pretrial Services Bureau - two agencies with seemingly contradictory needs and interests? "If the jail is running the pretrial-release program and if they have an overriding interest in letting people out - which they do because it's horribly overcrowded," says Petersen, "then the program is going to become a vehicle for getting people out of jail rather than a vehicle for objectively determining who should be released without bond and who shouldn't."

Other critics agree. "I'm not a real fan of the program in general," says Abe Laeser, Dade's senior trial assistant state attorney. "I think the primary function [of Pretrial Services] is to be a clearing-house for the jail as opposed to a program that actually cares whether or not this person or that person is going to cause a problem if they are released." The Bail Bondsmen's Association's Gary Whitice says, "Pretrial release is simply used to maintain somewhat of a cap at the jail, and it seems that the main consideration - which is whether or not the guy seems like a good risk of showing up in court again - is not really taken into serious consideration."

Assistant State Attorney Ken Behle takes the assessment a step further, arguing that the Pretrial Services Bureau isn't held responsible for the actions of defendants freed under the program. "You've got to keep in mind that this is their job," Behle says of the bureau. "And if no one were let out in their custody, not only would the jails be filled, but they would most likely not be in business any more. And so, knowing there is very little risk to them, and that they are not going to be held accountable [for the program's failures], their incentive will be to take someone as opposed to keeping that person in jail."

Perhaps the strongest supporter of pretrial release is Judge Gerald Wetherington, who stepped down June 30 after ten years as the circuit court's chief administrative judge. As chief judge, Wetherington had direct administrative control over both the jail and the Pretrial Services Bureau. Given the nearly 55,000 felony arrests each year, Wetherington contends, the bureau has performed consistently well under difficult conditions. "When you think about handling 135,000 [felony and misdemeanor arrests] a year with what we're doing, you have to say that our Department of Corrections and the pretrial-release program have done a miraculous job," says Wetherington. "This community owes these people a tremendous debt of gratitude."

But Judge Petersen says it is misleading to measure the program's success by the number of defendants it releases. A better measure, he argues, would be the percentage of released defendants who return for their court hearings. Buckhalt says that in 1989 only twelve percent of pretrial-release defendants failed to show up in court. By his calculations, 1990 was even better, with a failure-to-appear rate of little more than ten percent.

If these figures are accurate, Dade County's Pretrial Services Bureau is operating one of the most successful programs in the nation. But bail bondsmen and assistant state attorneys strongly doubt Buckhalt's statistical methodology; most of them estimate that between 25 and 30 percent of Pretrial Services' defendants skip their court dates. Those higher estimates are confirmed by a U.S. Department of Justice study conducted in 1989.

Federal researchers tracked 489 randomly selected Dade felony defendants from February 1988 through February 1989 and calculated Pretrial Service's failure-to-appear rate, along with that of defendants released on their own recognizance. (Although the study did not distinguish between the bureau's defendants and those released on their own recognizance, investigators who collected the data say the sample was almost entirely composed of Pretrial Services defendants.) The results dramatically contradict Buckhalt's figures.

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