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Pretrial release targeted by bail bond lobby and Florida legislators

TALLAHASSEE — A powerful special interest and two influential state lawmakers united Friday to push a measure that critics contend will make it harder to get out of jail before a trial.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher and Rep. Chris Dorworth, seeks to restrict — if not eliminate — pretrial release programs that operate in some of the largest Florida counties.

It would set statewide standards that limit eligibility to only indigent, nonviolent defendants and revokes a county's ability to charge a fee for its program, potentially nullifying it entirely.

The seemingly innocuous topic belies the fervent lobbying effort and political maneuvering at work. A Senate and House committee heard the legislation during simultaneous morning meetings, drawing large crowds.

"It's all about the money," said Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats, who spoke in ardent opposition. Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, called the measure a "bailout for bondsmen."

A fiscal analysis showed the bail bonds industry is the main beneficiary of the legislation. But Dorworth, a future House speaker, told the House panel that the program "has overreached its purpose and is now in direct competition with private interests."

On the other side, local governments and sheriffs fear the worst, arguing it will cost them millions of dollars to house jail inmates who don't have the money to post a bond. Miami-Dade County estimated it would cost between $1 million and $10 million at a time when local budgets are being slashed, an analysis showed.

As for the intense lobbying against the bill, "Hell hath no furry like a bureaucrat who's been asked not to compete against private industry," said Dorworth, a Lake Mary Republican.

The bitter feud caught uber-lobbyist Ron Book in the middle. His clients Miami-Dade and Broward counties raised a fit when they learned he also represented the bail bondsmen. He said he is no longer lobbying on the issue, though he still attended the House committee hearing.

The issue similarly divided the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which spent nearly an hour debating.

Thrasher, the chairman of the state Republican Party, said his measure (SB 782) would save law enforcement money because deputies wouldn't need to track down defendants who abscond. But as opposition mounted, he decided to indefinitely delay his bill.

Then the crowd of supporters and opponents left the meeting en masse and paraded across the Capitol courtyard to the House Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee, which heard the a similar bill (HB 445) moments later.

The bail bondsmen found a more receptive crowd, but with two Republican members absent, Dorworth softened the language in order to get Orlando Democrat Darren Soto to give it the edge, 6-5.

Rep. Juan Zapata, a Miami Republican who opposed the bill, confronted Soto as the meeting ended, waving his finger and scolding him in Spanish.

Soto said the changes remove the controversial provisions, but most lawmakers expect them to return later.

Pretrial release targeted by bail bond lobby and Florida legislators 03/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 26, 2010 7:23pm]
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