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

Instead of a 12-percent failure rate, the federal study showed a 27-percent failure rate. According to the Justice Department researcher who supervised the study, the vastly different figures are the result of statistical manipulation. Buckhalt's method of calculating the failure-to-appear rate, says the investigator, is not common and is not the method employed by the federal government. It does, however, produce figures that give the appearance of great success. (By way of contrast, bail bondsmen whose clients have a failure-to-appear rate higher than five percent will be out of business, according to Roger Handberg, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. Private bail bondsmen put this rate at closer to two percent.)

Even more convincing are figures compiled in 1990 by the Bail Bondsmen's Association, which commissioned the Metro-Dade Police Department to write a computer program that would calculate the total number of people who had rearrest warrants issued for them as a result of their failure to appear in court. In 1989 rearrest warrants were issued for 7844 people in Dade, and 76 percent (5964) of those were defendants released through Pretrial Services. Dividing this figure by the total number of people released to the program in 1989 (21,651) the failure-to-appear rate is 27.5 percent - consistent with the Justice Department's study. "If that figure is correct," Petersen laments, "it's very unfortunate. How can they justify their existence with that kind of performance?"

Another measure of the program's success (or failure) might be the rate of Pretrial Services defendants who were rearrested on new charges while awaiting trial, people such as Cornell Austin, Raul Rodriguez, and Carlos Ramirez. (A 1986 study undertaken nationwide by the Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice revealed that defendants released on programs like Pretrial Services committed twice as many crimes while awaiting trial as did defendants released on monetary bail.) Buckhalt places the 1989 rate at 6.7 percent and the 1990 rate at a scant 4.2 percent. But the Department of Justice study based on 1988 figures found the Dade rearrest rate - for Pretrial Services defendants combined with those released on their own recognizance - to be 9.5 percent.

Yet another telling statistic is the percentage of the bureau's defendants who failed to abide by the basic conditions of their release to Pretrial Services. In 1989 nearly half - 48 percent - of the defendants referred to counselor supervision were listed in bureau files as "unsuccessful referrals," which resulted in a "violation memorandum" being sent to the court by Pretrial Services. But according to Buckhalt, judges rarely, if ever, revoke a defendant's release, even after receiving such a memo. "The court will more than likely just keep the person on pretrial [release]," he says candidly. "All the court cares about is that he shows up in court." In 1990, Buckhalt says, no figures were kept for the program's rate of unsuccessful referrals.

In stark contrast to Judge Wetherington's assessment of the program, Petersen remains appalled. In recent years, he believes, Pretrial Services administrators have become so obsessed with the single issue of jail overcrowding that they have adopted a fire-sale approach to handing out pretrial release. "In my experience at bond hearings, I've noticed that Pretrial Release was trying, for whatever reason, to take everybody without really checking them out very effectively," says Petersen, who, like all circuit court judges, presides over bond hearings for one or two weeks each year. "And I was sure in a lot of cases that those people were not going to show up [for court] if released. It seems as though they have a vested interest in taking out large numbers of people, and they shouldn't do that. They should confine themselves to taking out people who are good risks of showing up."

Currently Pretrial Services officers use a scoring sheet during each interview to assess the defendant. Yet there is at least one obvious flaw in the system. If an individual has no proof of identification, bureau officers - and the court - are essentially forced to take the defendant's word for who he really is, as well as for his criminal history. Buckhalt says the jail will not hold arrestees long enough for police to verify their identity - a process that normally takes between four and ten hours. Consequently, judges often release defendants through Pretrial Services "pending a positive identification." And by the time law-enforcement officials know who a defendant really is, that person is already back on the street, thanks to pretrial release. Bail bondsman Frank Di Rocco, who worked as an IRS investigator for twenty years, says he sees it happen every day: "If you go over to the jail after bond hearing, you'll see all these people getting out on pretrial [release] and they'll all be high-fiving each other and they'll be saying, `I can't believe they bought that crap again.' These guys have the system figured out."

"It's common, very common," affirms Buckhalt. "Because you're dealing with an intelligent criminal and they know the system better than you or I do." But Judge Wetherington, who admits that defendants are released after giving false information "from time to time," insists that there is no easy solution to the problem. Holding defendants the extra few hours necessary to complete a fingerprint identification would place too much strain on the jail system. "It can't be done," he says flatly. "We're dealing with a crisis situation here in Dade County."

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