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Anti-Murder Act has unintended consequences

Erica Andrew walks into Pinellas Circuit Court recently after waiting in jail for six weeks for her hearing. Unable to attend classes at St. Petersburg College, she lost her financial aid.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Erica Andrew walks into Pinellas Circuit Court recently after waiting in jail for six weeks for her hearing. Unable to attend classes at St. Petersburg College, she lost her financial aid.

Outrage ran high in 2004 when an ex-con snatched an 11-year-old Sarasota girl off the street, then raped and murdered her.

Carlie Brucia personified innocence. That her killer was still on the street after recently violating probation seemed to confirm a widespread notion that courts and judges go easy on criminals.

So the Legislature passed the "Anti-Murder Act" to lengthen prison sentences and deny bail to certain felons who violate probation.

Like all broad-swath legislation, however, it exacted a cost.

Minor probation violations that judges once handled on the spot can now take weeks to wend through clogged court systems.

Worse, say some people who work in the system, the no-bail rule can create more crime than it prevents. Probation violators waiting weeks in jail for a hearing end up losing jobs and apartments, even though the judge eventually rules that their infraction was minor and they are no danger to society.

"They get out with no money, no job and no place to stay," says Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "It's not conducive to staying out of trouble."

The no-bail rule doesn't affect dangerous probationers who commit serious new crimes, Dillinger says. Judges never granted them bail in the first place. They sit in jail until their trial, then go to prison — just like always.

Instead, Dillinger says, the law mainly affects people who aren't dangerous, as well as taxpayers who pay to keep them in jail pending a hearing.

"This is a knee-jerk reaction that is casting a net too wide," Dillinger says. "It is slowing the criminal justice system down without adding any extra protection for the safety of the public."

No bail, no school

St. Petersburg resident Erica Andrew — all 5 feet 2, 135 pounds of her — is hardly a hardened criminal. Nor is she an angel.

Last year at age 19, she and a friend broke into two houses. Then she violated probation by breaking her 10 p.m. curfew.

In years past, she might have received a notice to appear in court to receive her punishment for the probation violation. Or if police arrested her, she probably could have made bail within a week.

Under the Anti-Murder Act, Andrew was labeled a "violent felon of special concern," which meant no bail.

So she spent six weeks in the Pinellas County Jail, waiting for a hearing on her curfew violation. Unable to attend classes at St. Petersburg College, she failed the semester and lost her financial aid.

In December, when she finally got to court, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Frank Quesada extended her probation, this time with an ankle monitor and a warning that minimum sentencing will kick in if she messes up again, and she will face several years in prison.

By denying her bail, the Anti-Murder Act "seriously affected her chance of rehabilitation and seriously increased her chance of re-offending," Quesada says. "You take someone who has finally got a job or is going to school. They are working eight hours a day — even if it's in McDonald's — and suddenly they lose that, they usually go back to their usual nocturnal behavior, sleeping during the day, going out at night to meet friends. The chances of them reoffending go way up."

Andrew says she hopes to re-enroll in college if she can figure out how to pay for classes.

Fellow jail inmates were incredulous to discover she couldn't make bail, she says. "I told them I had to stay in jail for an evidentiary hearing and they said, 'They think you are dangerous?' "

"They were laughing about it."

A label that sticks

The Anti-Murder Act lists dozens of offenses that label someone a "violent felon of special concern," ranging from murder to "abuse of a dead human body." The label sticks forever.

If those people are ever on probation for a felony — even a nonviolent one — then violate that probation, a judge must hold a formal hearing to determine whether they are dangerous.

In Pinellas, such "dangerousness" hearings take weeks to schedule to give the state and defense time to subpoena witnesses and prepare their case.

Soon after the law went into effect in 2007 a wayward fisherman created a stir in Quesada's court. Neither the judge nor lawyers who practice before him can remember his name — just the details of the case.

The man had broken into an occupied dwelling as a teenager in the 1960s. A few years ago, he went on probation for driving with a suspended license — a new felony. Then he violated that probation by not having a warning whistle on his fishing boat.

Because the Anti-Murder Act wouldn't allow bail, he spent almost two months in jail before his "dangerousness" hearing rolled around and Quesada let him back on the street.

Probation violations, particularly of a technical nature, are common. Probationers can get into hot water for failing to turn a job hunt report in on time or by dating other clients in a substance abuse class.

In December, the Department of Corrections listed about 118,000 people on active probation. About 30,000 probationers had violations pending.

Quesada's court division processes Pinellas County's "technical" probation violations, which means they don't involve serious new crimes. He estimates that 400 to 500 violators a year carry the "violent felon" tag, which means no bail.

He ends up sending about half to prison. Their probation violations might be driving under the influence, a bar fight or a dirty urine test — not as serious as armed robbery but enough to show they've used up second and third chances.

That means 200 to 250 violators do return to the street, Quesada says, but not before spending four or five weeks in jail at $126 a day.

Getting the information

Chris Watson, felony division chief for the Hillsborough Public Defender's Office, says the Anti-Murder Act did accomplish one goal: In the old days, a felon who violated probation might get arrested on the weekend or in another county. Judges decided on bail without knowing much about the felon's violent past or current behavior.

Hillsborough now sends "violent felons" back to the judge who put them on probation so that judge can set punishment for violations.

"That was what the law intended, that people didn't get released by a judge who didn't have a dog in the fight," Watson says. "The (original) judge can either say, 'That violation wasn't that serious,' or 'I'm not going to make that mistake twice.' "

Carlie Brucia's killer, Joseph Smith, would not have fallen under the Anti-Murder Act because he committed drug crimes, not violent felonies. When he violated probation by not paying court costs, the judge who released him knew little of his background, including some violent encounters with women.

Since then, computerization of records has improved judicial decisionmaking, notes Pinellas prosecutor Beverly Andringa.

"More violent people slipped through in the past because the state didn't alert the judge about (prior arrests), because of paperwork," Andringa says. "Now I can sit at my desk and run a rap sheet. I don't need to send for it somewhere and get it two weeks later.

"The system is so sophisticated there's no reason for the court and attorneys not to know everyone's record."

Anti-Murder Act has unintended consequences 01/08/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 10, 2011 10:02am]

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