Robert Bonanno apparently didn't discredit the Hillsborough County Courthouse enough in his years as a judge. Now he runs a business where people who pay to attend his for-profit program can have their court-ordered community service hours waived or reduced. The arrangement smacks of insider trading and pay-to-play, and Hillsborough's judiciary should have no part of it.
St. Petersburg Times staff writer Colleen Jenkins reported this week that the disgraced ex-judge has been visiting former colleagues to drum up business for his venture, called Bonanno's Probation & Violation Center. For $65, students can enroll in a four-hour class to hear "insight into what is expected of them while on probation." Register online from the convenience of home. Credit cards are fine.
Getting lectured about the straight and narrow from a judge who resigned after a state House committee began impeachment proceedings over an alleged courthouse affair, sealed court cases and the purchase of a $450,000 model home certainly would rank as an experience. But it is unclear what Bonanno could offer that the state doesn't already provide for free. Since July, 166 defendants in Hillsborough have paid the $65 each for Bonanno's one-night course. Yet the state Department of Corrections offers counseling for probationers, too. And those courses are free.
Nobody can fault Bonanno for trying to make a living. The real question is why three judges in Hillsborough have signed on as enablers. Circuit Judges Manuel Lopez, Daniel Perry and Wayne Timmerman have allowed a small percentage of defendants to attend Bonanno's classes in lieu of performing some or all of their community service hours. A 20-year-old Bloomingdale woman sat through the four-hour course, wiping away one-third of her community service obligation. "It was boring," she said. "(But) I got rid of 50 hours."
Bonanno has a point that court-ordered service hours are so widely discounted they amount to "funny money" to defendants and judges alike. But that speaks to the need to fix the system — not create a business model for people in the know to milk it even more. Community service is often the only public good that comes from a criminal act. It should not be reduced to a cash cow for a private vendor. And here's to the vast majority of Hillsborough judges, who saw this business relationship with Bonanno as inappropriate. That thinking, and regard for history, shows that the courthouse has indeed come a long way over the past decade.