Thousands of Pinellas jail inmates released without a judge ever setting bail

John Mucci, 50, was arrested June 8 after a police officer found a bag of cocaine in his pickup truck during a traffic stop.

It was the second time in seven years Mucci had been arrested on illegal drug charges. The Clearwater resident was charged with felony possession.

In years past, a cocaine possession charge would have meant at least a night in county lockup until a judge could set bail. But after an interview with a booking officer at the Pinellas County Jail the night of his arrest, Mucci was sent home.

No strip search, no bail to post, no inmate scrubs needed.

"ROR" — release on recognizance — was scribbled on his arrest affidavit, a court date to come later.

Since November, more than 3,000 people have been released from custody this way in Pinellas County. Their charges ranged from minor misdemeanors to felonies like grand theft, battery and heroin possession.

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office saved at least $126 per person, the cost to house an inmate for a day — a total that jail officials think could come close to $1 million by year's end — and had one fewer occupied bunk in the jail.

Pinellas is the only county in Tampa Bay to make such extensive use of administrative release-on-recognizance orders.

The trend represents a shift from years past, when even minor offenders may have spent at least a night in jail as they awaited a first appearance before a judge. Accused felons stood nary a chance at such breaks.

But because the Pinellas County Jail remains overcrowded after budget cuts forced it to close wings, the number of administrative RORs has climbed as jail officials try to strike a balance between keeping the worst offenders behind bars and saving money and space by releasing some of those charged with lesser crimes.

Between January and May 31, 2,237 people left the jail without having ever set foot inside a cell. Of those, 463 were charged with felonies. Over the same period in 2009, the total was 777, including all charges.

Bruce Bartlett, Pinellas-Pasco chief assistant state attorney, was surprised to learn that the numbers had increased so sharply this year. He said that while the increase in ROR orders has its benefits, increasing the number of charged felons is worrisome.

"The misdemeanors don't give me a whole lot of heartburn, but the felonies have me concerned," Bartlett said. "A second-degree felony, that's a whole different animal. You're talking about a serious offense, something that could result in 15 years in prison."

The increase in releases came late last year, when Chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri instructed the jail staff to take full advantage of a judicial order that has been on the books since 2007. It authorized such releases based on the judgment of jail employees.

The order, which contained a range of measures to combat jail overcrowding, included guidelines for releasing convicted criminals early. "We wanted to make sure we're maximizing all of the avenues we have to keep jail population in a manageable range," Gualtieri said.

So far, Gualtieri said, the increased use of RORs has been a boon for the department in both extra jail space and cost savings.

And the failure-to-appear rate in Pinellas, 5 percent, has historically been below the national average of 20 percent, Gualtieri said. Figures were not available on whether the Pinellas percentage has changed of late.

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office had not used the 2007 order to the fullest extent until late last year, when jail staffers received additional training in selecting candidates. "What I stressed was I wanted to make sure we're making the right decisions, the best decisions, consistent with the order. We want to make sure they meet the criteria," Gualtieri said.

The criteria include severity of past offenses and ties to the community, which tend to reflect a person's flight risk.

Bernie McCabe, state attorney for Pinellas and Pasco, said he is unaware of a single case in which an accused felon committed additional crimes while on administrative recognizance release.

"The Sheriff's Office has always been pretty good at looking at the factors they're supposed to look at," McCabe said.

Pinellas County's handling of RORs is distinctly different from other jurisdictions around Tampa Bay.

In Pasco County, no felons have been released on their own recognizance without first appearing before a judge, said Pasco sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll.

Hernando County sheriff's spokeswoman Donna Black said the jail there, which is run by a private company, follows standard bail schedules for offenses — which generally does not allow for ROR orders except for the most minor offenses.

And in Hillsborough County, a jail spokesman said no arrested individuals were released before appearing before a judge in May.

John Carroll, chief of the Largo Police Department, said that while it's every officer's "worst nightmare" to see someone who should be behind bars released, he trusts the judgment of the Pinellas Sheriff's Office and understands its space and financial situation.

"I would much rather have a child molester have bed space in jail than have someone who was growing a couple of marijuana plants in their house," Carroll said. "I'm in this job to put the bad guys behind bars, but you want to keep the worst of the worst there first."

While law enforcement officers view the increase in releases authorized by jail officials with cautious acceptance, others see it as a disservice to the community — especially bail bondsmen, who have a vested interest in arrested individuals being released on bail.

Matt Mequio, owner of ASAP Bail Bonds in Clearwater, said that more RORs means a higher chance that some people might not have as much incentive to show up in court — which is what bondsmen compel their clients to do. "I make money off it, yes, but I'm a babysitter for grownups," Mequio said. "We keep an eye over these people and make sure they do what they need to do — and that means go to court."

Dominick Tao can be reached at dtao@sptimes.com or (727) 580-2951.

Thousands of Pinellas jail inmates released without a judge ever setting bail 07/05/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 5, 2010 9:57pm]

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