Saturday, November 18, 2017
Politics

Florida not quite the pretrial services model, despite what John Oliver says

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HBO host and news-comedian John Oliver surprised us, and maybe even himself, on Last Week Tonight when he hailed Florida as a model for the country for a component of its judicial system — and not for, say, assaults with a slice of pizza, or something like that.

"Pretrial service programs have succeeded around the country in places ranging from Oregon to Florida," Oliver said. "And it is a truly frightening state of affairs when Florida is a model for progressive change."

Oliver was criticizing the money-bail system that exists throughout most of the country in his June 7 episode, saying it leaves people who are too poor to make bail for non-violent offenses behind bars, driving up jail costs and destroying livelihoods.

As an alternative, Oliver made the case for pretrial service programs. With these services, he said, a person who is arrested would be interviewed by a specialist to see if he or she poses a flight risk or is dangerous. The specialist makes a recommendation to a judge, and the judge decides whether to send the person home, where he or she may be monitored with drug tests, ankle monitors and phone calls about court dates.

PolitiFact Florida wanted to unpack his claim that Florida is a "model for progressive change" for its successful pretrial release programs. That wasn't meant to be a joke.

Pretrial justice experts we consulted said while Florida has some positive things going for it, calling it a nationwide model is a bit of a stretch. (Oliver's staff did not comment for this fact-check.)

Cherise Fanno Burdeen is executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, which supports alternatives to money bail. Burdeen said she would not have hailed Florida as a progressive pretrial services model.

"That's probably not a statement I would make," Burdeen said. "It's definitely more nuanced."

In the mid 1970s, amid national reforms, some Florida counties started pretrial service programs, mainly because of jail overcrowding. Programs exist today in 29 of 67 counties.

Not all states have done that, Burdeen said. But Florida does not offer pretrial services statewide, and "it certainly has a long way to go in terms of other needed components of reform," she said.

One example: Only a few counties use accredited standards for assessing an arrested person's flight risk and danger to the community before trial. The counties that are accredited by the Florida Corrections Accreditation Commission are Alachua, Broward, Lee, Miami-Dade, Orange and Volusia, which combined are home to 7.2 million residents, or 36 percent of the state's estimated population.

In 2013, Miami-Dade County served more than 10,500 people, Broward County served more than 6,000, and Palm Beach, Polk and Pinellas counties served more than 5,000, according to the Florida Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability annual report of pretrial service programs in the state.

In 2013, Hillsborough County's pretrial services served 724 defendants, according to the OPPAGA study. Only two were issued a warrant for failing to appear in court. Pasco County does not have a program.

In Pinellas County, pretrial services are not run by a court or a county agency — they're run through the sheriff's office. When someone is arrested, booking deputies have the option of setting a recommended bond for an offense or a higher or lower bond depending on the circumstances. Often the low bond is to release the defendant at the jail on his or her own recognizance, known as ROR.

If a defendant remains in jail until the first appearance, the judge could still decide to change the booking deputy's bond or recommend unsupervised or supervised ROR, which could include check-ins or electronic monitoring. When a judge is unsure, pretrial services staffers can conduct their own investigation into a defendant's background and advise the judge accordingly.

"It's a very, very useful tool to manage the jail population," said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

Spurgeon Kennedy, National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies vice president, said the vast majority of American counties do not have pretrial programs, so the fact that Florida has some is a positive in his group's view.

That said, the money-bail system remains prevalent and powerful throughout the state.

"Unfortunately, Florida uses money primarily, and that's the reason why we would hesitate to say what is happening in Florida is a model," Kennedy said. "But you do have these programs."

So there are pockets of progress, advocates said, but the commercial bail bonding industry is also strong in Florida and not every county has pretrial services. Oliver's claim rates claim Half True.

This report has been edited for print. For more, go to www.politifact.com/florida

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