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Justice slows, pushing up Pinellas jail costs

Justice should be swift and sure. But in Pinellas County, it would be more fitting to call the criminal justice system slow and costly.

Over the course of two decades, the time it takes to close a criminal case in Pinellas has increased dramatically. Example: In 1989, the typical robbery case took 96 days to wrap up in court. Now it's 244.

This costs money. Two-thirds of the inmates at the county jail are not there serving time. They await trial. Each extra day they wait costs about $100 per inmate, according to Pinellas Sheriff's Office figures.

Multiply that cost by 20 years and tens of thousands of extra jail days and it adds up to a financial hit for Pinellas taxpayers totaling tens of millions of dollars

To be sure, most of this expense is unavoidable. It is the price taxpayers around the state bear for delays caused by new, more harsh sentencing guidelines, minimum mandatory sentences and other crime deterrent measures, along with the simple fact that times have changed.

But part of the problem is strictly Pinellas.

The county's disposition rate — the percentage of defendants whose cases are closed in a year divided by the number whose cases are opened — has ranked worse than all of its large county peers and among the slowest statewide.

"We weren't used to being anything other than frankly the most progressive here," said Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Robert Morris. "We were humbled by that."

Bernie McCabe, state attorney for the Pinellas-Pasco circuit, spoke for some in the system when he put the blame on a lack of awareness and "simple procrastination."

He said the system as a whole — prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges — failed to manage their resources as efficiently as they should.

"I don't think you can escape that," McCabe said.

•••

Overcrowding at the jail — and the expense of jail expansion — focused official attention about a year and a half ago. The situation, simply put, was this:

Over 20 years, the number of people booked into the jail each year stayed roughly the same, according to Sheriff's Office figures. But the population of the jail doubled and costs tripled as the average jail stay went from a little less than 12 days to a little more than 23.

Recognizing the problem, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys have worked furiously to speed criminal cases through the court system. From 2007 to 2008, they appear to have shaved more than a day from the average length of stay.

One day may not seem like much, but the annual savings, using the Sheriff's Office figure of just over $100 per inmate per day, could amount to as much as $5-million.

Taxpayers, while no doubt appreciative that officials have acted to save money, might wince at the realization that such an expensive problem could have been addressed long ago.

McCabe and Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, however, say the savings to taxpayers is actually much less than $5-million — though they have no idea by how much.

Both men say the sheriff's method for calculating per diem cost — the jail's operating expenses divided by the total inmate-days each year — mistakenly counts fixed costs and staffing expenses that wouldn't necessarily be altered by the addition or subtraction of one or even 100 inmates.

While the exact daily cost is open to debate, Sheriff Jim Coats said that jail expenses have in fact gone down significantly in the last year.

•••

On Jan. 5, 2004, St. Petersburg police officers arrested Barry Durham and charged him with attempted murder. Over the next 41/2 years, he had four different defense attorneys and was granted eight continuances. Despite all that, Durham never went to trial. Finally, he made a plea deal and got 5½ years.

But Durham had already served 80 percent of his time in the Pinellas jail. So the county shouldered most of the financial burden that a more efficient process would have sent off to the state Department of Corrections.

The tab for Pinellas taxpayers: almost $150,000.



Now, officials said, they've infused day-to-day dealings with a new sense of urgency, cutting days here and there from the amount of time it takes to file charges or turn over discovery. A Violation of Probation court was established. There has been intermittent use of a "rocket docket" to pick off stagnating cases.

The courts lowered bond amounts across the board.

Said Morris, the chief judge: "We are taking risks with letting people out of jail … that a year ago we would have said, 'You know the public doesn't expect us to do this,' but the message now from the public is, 'There's no money.' "

•••

So how did the system get so slow?

"Procrastination may be a harsh term," said McCabe, the state attorney. "But yeah, 'I'd rather do something else today. Or let's do this next week or next month.' I think it's just a matter of not putting your mind to it to move the cases collectively."

In a later interview, he amended his comments to say the delays were caused not by a "conscious procrastination" but by an excess of collegiality, where prosecutors and defense attorneys who dealt with each other every day were inclined to accommodate each other's requests for continuances.

"We weren't any less professional back in 1990,'' McCabe added, "but we moved cases better." McCabe has been state attorney for 15 years and part of the office for 36.

Bruce Bartlett, McCabe's top assistant, found a "lax attitude" in prosecutors, many of whom were willing to continue a case just because the defense attorney asked for it.

"It may not be a big deal to continue this case several times," added McCabe, "but it becomes a big deal when we continue this case, that case and that case several times."

Bartlett said prosecutors are not specifically evaluated on how quickly they push cases through the system, although it would be noted if they had a lot of cases limping along.

Morris said blaming the problem on judges and prosecutors is "not fair, not true, not right." He said court officials have to proceed carefully and that care takes time.

Morris pointed to defense attorneys who, he said, ask for the majority of the continuances and thus control the tempo of the court. Denying their requests is difficult because that denial can be grounds for the case to be overturned on appeal.

"The moment they stand up and say I need more time, what are we going to do?'' Morris asked. "Shove it down their throats? It's just not realistic."

But Susan Schaeffer, who served as chief judge from 1992 to 2001, said she saw it as her duty to cut down on continuances. "What you're continuing is a trial date that's never going to happen because they're going to end up ultimately being pleas in a large percentage of cases," she said. "That's why my attitude was don't continue the case because I could dispose of it if I held their feet to the fire faster."

She said some judges, especially new ones, don't have the same sense of urgency.

"The judge always sets the tone," said former Circuit Judge Brandt Downey. "If the judge isn't going to push it, the defense will know that quick enough."

•••

On Sept. 8, 2005, Tracy Pittman was booked into the jail on a charge of aggravated battery. Pittman, then 40, was accused of boiling a pan of maple syrup on the stove and pouring it on his fiance's adult son, resulting in second degree burns across 10 percent of the victim's body

The case dragged on for more than 2½ years.

During one hearing, Judge Nancy Moate Ley said she wasn't inclined to grant another continuance in a case in which "there are a million things wrong."

"This has just gone on long enough," she told the defense attorney, according to court transcripts. But the defense attorney and the prosecutor both wanted to allow more time.

The final score on Pittman: five different court-appointed lawyers. Ten different scheduled trial dates. A total of 992 days in jail awaiting trial, at a cost of just under $100,000.

The long jail stays of Pittman and Durham represent extreme examples of a problem that, in more typical cases, would cause less dramatic delays. Most inmates, in fact, spend fewer than the average 23 days in jail. But those with unusually long stays skew the average — and costs — upward.

On May 27, a jury convicted Pittman. He was later sentenced to 30 years in prison.

At the end of one hearing he apologized to the judge: "I'm sorry for having congested your court, honestly."

•••

Today, Pinellas judges and prosecutors say they approach each case with a sense of urgency. And they say they're committed not to let the system get out of whack again.

A consultant hired by the county has been studying the problem and is supposed to present a final report this month.

"We can improve somewhat,'' said Judge Morris, "but we can't get it back to where it was in the late '80s … simply because things are more complicated now."

Times Staff Writer Matthew Waite contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

Pinellas median days from filing to disposition

This table shows how many days it takes for the circuit criminal court in Pinellas to resolve the median case. In the last 20 years, the number of days went up significantly.
Crime 1987 1988 1989 2007 2008*
Capital murder 327 527 454 609 510
Noncapital murder 173 126 180 558 543
Sex offenses 150 115 140 293 292
Robbery 86 123 96 242 244
Crimes against persons 58 59 63 209 195
Burglary 72 73 78 215 178
Drugs 56 51 50 163 158
Theft/forgery/fraud 73 77 78 147 123
Bad checks 90 67 74 104 105
Other crimes against property 56 51 50 229 317
Other 66 63 63 138 129
*Year to date

Sources: Pinellas County Information Systems Office, Pinellas County Department of Business Technology Services


While local officials accept responsibility for some of the delays in the court system, they point to Tallahassee for most of the explosive increase in jail expenses.

How explosive?

In 1990, it cost $28-million, or roughly $47-million in today's dollars, to run the jail. The current jail budget is $132-million. On top of that, officials plan three phases of jail expansion over the next 22 years that will cost about $560-million.

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger points a finger at legislation that ordered increasingly harsh sentencing guidelines, minimum mandatory sentences and a requirement that convicts in state prison serve 85 percent of their sentences.

These provisions, he said, have made it more difficult to arrange plea deals and have reduced the incentive of the accused to accept them. They've also forced defense attorneys to spend more time preparing cases because the consequences of conviction are so severe.

All of this is bad news for a system that only gets by because 98 percent of defendants statewide do not go to trial.

Back in the 1980s, defendants were more likely to get generous plea deals from prosecutors. Even those who went to prison were likely to serve only one-third of their sentences. Defendants raced to plead guilty even to crimes like murder.

"When you were doing 20 months (in prison) on 20 years, the guy really could care less if he had a motion to suppress because it might keep him in there another three months to get the motions to suppress done,'' Dillinger said. "He'd sooner go on to prison and get out. Now when he's looking at 20 years and he's going to do 16 or 17 years on that he wants every i dotted and t crossed."

Dillinger said the situation is complicated by State Attorney Bernie McCabe's aggressive approach to prosecution. Statewide, the guideline sentences are mitigated in 59 percent of cases; it's 69 percent in Hillsborough and 91 percent in Miami-Dade. In the Pinellas-Pasco district, the sentence only deviates from the guidelines in 44 percent of the cases, making it harder for all sides to make deals.

Dillinger said this is a sign of McCabe's aggressive style.

McCabe said it's just a matter of adhering to the law.

Justice slows, pushing up Pinellas jail costs 09/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 10, 2008 4:39pm]

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