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Four-hour course helps probationers, profits former Judge Robert Bonanno

TAMPA — Once part of the power center of Hillsborough County Courthouse politics, Judge Robert Bonanno resigned in 2001 under a cloud.

Now he's visiting former colleagues to drum up business for a fledgling, for-profit venture aimed at helping people complete their court-ordered supervision.

Since July, 166 defendants in Hillsborough have paid $65 each for a four-hour class at Bonanno's Probation & Violation Center. In exchange for their voluntary attendance, their community service hours are waived or significantly reduced.

The three felony judges offering that incentive say they don't see a conflict with the arrangement, though they are awaiting an ethics opinion.

But most of their colleagues — and state corrections officials — haven't lined up in support of Bonanno's program.

"I think that they're doing something that the Department of Corrections is supposed to do themselves," Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta said.

In fact, the department does offer educational sessions for probationers. For free.

The 15 state-sponsored events scheduled this month in Hillsborough will include tips for succeeding on probation, plus information about using public transportation, making life goals and getting job training.

"We try to set up classes to benefit what their needs are," said Gail Reddick, the department's circuit administrator in Hillsborough. "That's the reason why we exist, is to try to help the offenders."

The three judges who give defendants credit for taking the Probation & Violation Center course have not extended the same benefit to participants of the state's classes. They said they would do so gladly but that no one has ever asked or even told them those classes exist.

Bonanno spent 19 years on the bench in Hillsborough County. His downfall began when a bailiff discovered him inside Circuit Judge Gregory Holder's empty, darkened office after hours. A grand jury said Bonanno ruined his credibility with his explanation for being there.

After a state House committee began impeachment proceedings, Bonanno stepped down to avoid facing questions about a courthouse affair, the sealing of cases and the purchase of a $450,000 model home.

He has worked since as a private lawyer and certified mediator, and remains in good standing with the Florida Bar.

With so many people tripping up on their court supervision — there were more than 12,000 probation violations in Hillsborough during the last fiscal year — Bonanno says he saw an opportunity to use his experience to help.

The Probation & Violation Center began offering classes in July. There have been 12 sessions so far.

Bonanno, a psychiatrist and a former probation supervisor provide the instruction, which includes some basic behavioral therapy. The former judge believes people in the course are more comfortable asking questions and airing concerns than they would be in a corrections department class taught by a probation officer.

Probation officers "can't spend four hours with each client they have," Bonanno said. "They just don't have the time to do it. Even if they did, I don't think that DOC will ever be able to get the same level of trust."

Bonanno envisions taking the model statewide.

He has already pitched the idea to Circuit Judge Frank Quesada, who hears violation of probation cases in Pinellas County. Quesada said he would like to pursue the general concept if it proves successful across the bay.

It's too soon to gauge whether the idea is working. So far in Hills­borough, Circuit Judges Manuel Lopez, Daniel Perry and Wayne Timmerman have allowed a small percentage of defendants to attend one of Bonanno's classes in lieu of some or all of their community service hours.

The judges said they do not order the course as a term of probation, nor do they initiate sending defendants there. They see it as merely an alternative to community service that people can request if interested.

Lopez cuts hours in half for those who choose to attend.

"If I can get someone off probation successfully, I think that's a win," he said. "Let's see how it works.''

The three judges said they do not have concerns about the program's structure or Bonanno's involvement, despite some of their colleagues' reservations.

"I don't see any more conflict of (defendants) going to this than going to a DUI school or driving school with a for-profit company," said Perry, who presides over Hillsborough's probation violation division. "I think he has a right to earn a living."

Perry and his colleagues said they will heed whatever the state's Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, which was asked to issue an opinion, decides.

"If they tell me I can't do it, I certainly won't do it anymore," Perry said. "I don't get anything out of it."

Kaitlynn Jackson did.

Busy with beauty school and a job search, the 20-year-old Bloomingdale woman was finding it hard to chip away at the 150 community service hours she received after pleading guilty to criminal mischief.

Then she took the Probation & Violation Center course one night last week. In a sterile room filled with school desks, Jackson fiddled with her cell phone and munched on Ruffles chips as instructors covered material she said her probation officer had already told her.

Less than four hours later, she had credit for one-third of her community service requirement.

"I liked it," she said. "I mean, it was boring. (But) I got rid of 50 hours."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Four-hour course helps probationers, profits former Judge Robert Bonanno 04/11/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 12, 2010 6:56am]
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