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

And that very crisis, charge critics of the system, results in the release of defendants who are positively identified before their bond hearings and who have long criminal histories. Pretrial Services officers have access to prior-arrest records, and presumably people such as Raul Rodriguez, Carlos Ramirez, and Cornell Austin - who had four prior felony convictions and a documented history of violence - would not be recommended for pretrial release. But they all were. "You see these guys with long arrest records," says Assistant State Attorney Pam Thomas, "and you know that once they get released, they're going to go out and commit more crimes and get arrested again and again."

Assistant state attorneys say that Pretrial Services should not shoulder all the blame, that judges are as much, if not more, at fault for improper releases. Judge Wetherington, who says he has spent more time on the jail-overcrowding problem than any other issue over the past ten years, insists that he has never told other circuit court judges what kind of people they should and shouldn't release. But in 1983 Wetherington issued an administrative order that takes effect whenever the jail population reaches 1800. Under this order, Pretrial Services has the authority to override the ruling of a bond-hearing judge and release from jail virtually any defendant it chooses. In 1990 a total of 2832 defendants were released by Pretrial Services after they had been previously rejected by the program and had either been denied bond or had been unable to post the monetary bond set by the judge.

Calvin Mapp, administrative judge of the criminal traffic division, says that judges try not to release defendants they believe to be dangerous. But they are also very aware of the problem at the jail. "A lot of the judges have to work very closely with Corrections, because we are constantly overcrowded," says Mapp. "And if we get a note from Corrections saying, `Release as many as you can,' we do this, because we know what the problem is over there."

And judges occasionally go so far as to release defendants charged with serious felony offenses. Murder defendants, Buckhalt says, have petitioned for, and been awarded, pretrial release. In spite of state guidelines, the bureau director explains, judges have the ultimate authority to set any release conditions they determine to be appropriate. Andy Hague, an assistant state attorney in charge of gang prosecutions and organized crime, says he is currently prosecuting two defendants charged with manslaughter and a third charged with second-degree murder, and all three were released by a judge to Pretrial Services. "I'm not happy about it at all," says Hague. "I've had armed robbers, murderers, and the judge turns around and puts them on pretrial release. It's ridiculous and it irks the hell out of me."

"It's a judicial policy, in that the judges are the ones who decide who does and doesn't stay in custody," says Assistant State Attorney Abe Laeser. "However, they are more than grateful to have some sort of a program that's going to help them get people out of the jail every time a federal judge looks over their shoulder and says that the jail is overcrowded."

Laeser is referring to the long-standing federal court order that requires Dade County to maintain a jail population cap of 1336. For each day the population exceeds that figure, the county is to be fined $1000. But the jail population has not been that low "for at least ten years," says William Hoeveler, the federal judge assigned to the ongoing lawsuit over jail conditions, and the fine has never been imposed. On any given day, Hoeveler admits, the actual jail population hovers around 1800, but he has never imposed the fine because he is confident the county is taking serious steps - through its pretrial-release program and the construction of the new Metro West jail facility, slated for completion this fall - to correct the situation.

But the completion of a new facility will not necessarily spell the end for pretrial release. The Florida constitution guarantees a defendant's right to reasonable bail and release before trial, and state judicial guidelines stipulate a presumption in favor of nonmonetary release as the first alternative. Now that Pretrial Services is firmly entrenched, it would be almost inconceivable to once again limit its scope to the indigent. Like all bureaucracies, this one has developed a near-organic existence of its own. In just a few years it has become an established element of Dade's criminal-justice system.

"This is just a classic bureaucratic nightmare," says bail bondsman Frank Di Rocco. "The chief judge is shifting responsibility to the courts, and the courts are shifting the responsibility to the police. And in the middle is Pretrial Release, which seems to be accountable to virtually no one. They just keep doing their thing, day after day, and the criminals just keep moving in and out of the system. It's totally out of control and nobody has any idea where it's all going to end.

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