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Large bail cuts are standard in Citrus

Hubert Coleman was hauled into court Sept. 23 after authorities charged him with keeping drugs and stolen goods in his home. After reviewing the charges, County Judge Gary Graham said Coleman must pay $100,000 if he wants to stay out of jail until the case is resolved. But the next day, despite objections from the state, Circuit Judge John Thurman reduced that bail amount to $15,000. Coleman paid $1,500 _ the customary 10 percent of the amount _ to bail out, pledged to show up for his court dates, and went home.

In an unrelated case in April, Joseph Luvon Worley, accused of cutting a roommate with a pen knife, sat in jail for two weeks because he couldn't raise enough money to meet the $15,000 bail Graham had set.

When he appeared before Thurman on April 16, his bond was lopped to $2,000, court records show. One month after the Hernando man left jail, prosecutors dropped his aggravated battery charge.

Such dramatic swings in bail amounts, virtually unheard of elsewhere in the 5th Judicial Circuit, are standard fare in Citrus County courts, officials say. The circuit also includes Hernando, Sumter, Marion and Lake counties.

Court officials and lawyers, who must practice before both Citrus judges, are reluctant to say publicly whether Graham sets bails too high or if Thurman goes too far the other way.

But all agree that the trend is a problem for lawyers and can be unfair to defendants, most of whom must stay behind bars for a week or more until they can attempt to get their bail lowered.

"There's obviously a disparity of thinking between Judge Graham and Judge Thurman," says Assistant State Attorney Lisa Porter. In Marion County, where she used to prosecute crimes, "bonds always stayed the way they were."

Determining the bail

Graham sets bail for most people arrested in Citrus after methodically reviewing the person's criminal record and the arrest report.

In Florida, a judge can consider many factors when setting bail, including the person's criminal record, the risk to the community if the person is released, whether the person has ever failed to show up in court when called, and the strength of the state's case.

With Coleman, for example, Graham said sheriff's investigators thought he was running an organized burglary ring from his home on Croft Avenue. He also noted Coleman's record, which dates back nearly 20 years and includes convictions for aggravated assault, drunken driving, possession of marijuana and making false accident reports.

Coleman was on felony probation at the time of this arrest, Graham wrote on court papers.

Thurman was aware of those facts, too. He also heard from Coleman's attorney, Kenneth Travis, who said the 39-year-old Inverness man owns Coleman Concrete, has four children and would show up for court.

Thurman says he follows the same legal guidelines as Graham. And he, like Graham, often asks prosecutors for comments before making a decision.

But Thurman also prefers that some defendants work instead of sitting in jail gaining time that could remove the sting from any subsequent sentence.

"As long as they're not a threat to society," he said.

Graham declined to comment for this story.

Thurman sometimes has more information to consider. Lawyers state their reasons in writing and, occasionally, ask witnesses to testify.

But Assistant State Attorney Porter says that, in almost all cases, Thurman and Graham have the exact information. Rarely does the case change during the weeks between court appearances, she said.

Who makes decisions?

Bail is the cash, property or valuables a defendant leaves with the court or a bondsman to back up a promise that he will attend his court appearances. If he doesn't show up, the bail is forfeited and the defendant _ if located _ returns to jail.

When officers make an arrest they either release the person on his own recognizance or assign a bail amount from a list called a bail schedule. Those who can't raise that amount go before Graham the day after their arrest for their first appearance, a preliminary hearing in which a judge sets what he deems to be a reasonable bail.

For people charged with traffic or misdemeanor offenses, their bail is not likely to change at their first appearance. Graham has jurisdiction in those cases, and he would decide whether to grant a reduction.

Felony defendants often fare better before Thurman, who handles those cases. Coleman only waited one day for his shot at freedom. Others wait as long as two weeks.

Biding their time

Toby Douglas Hack, 18, was arrested July 16 after authorities say he took $500 from a neighbor's home. Graham, citing Hack's juvenile record, set bail at $10,000.

On July 30, Thurman chopped the bail to $1,000. Hack posted it, was released, and eventually was sentenced to 30 days in jail for the burglary offense.

Graham wanted John E. Darlington held on $22,500 bail for charges of grand theft auto and driving with a suspended license. He pointed out that the 28-year-old Pasco County man has an extensive criminal record, is a habitual traffic offender and was on felony probation when he was arrested April 26, court records show.

Two weeks later, Thurman noted all that, then reduced the bail to $1,000.

For Public Defender Skip Babb, those weeks in jail mean complaints and pleas for help to his office.

"Anything that makes the client stay longer in jail puts pressure on us. We're always the devil in the system," says Babb, whose office represents indigent defendants throughout the 5th Circuit.

State Attorney Brad King, however, is more concerned about the effects on a crime victim when Thurman reduces the defendant's bail.

"We have to explain to victims on a regular basis that the judge has reduced the bond," King says. "It's very disconcerting for victims to know that someone who committed an offense against them is back on the street."

Babb and King agree on at least one thing: If too many people can't pay bail, then the county's two jails soon won't have any empty beds.

Both officials are facing that situation now in Marion and Lake counties. More and more defendants there are released on their own recognizance, and the judges routinely release defendants who are waiting for their day in court.

Things aren't that bad in Citrus yet. But the day might not be far off.

No room at the inn

The county's downtown jail, which is reserved for felony and violent inmates, is packed beyond capacity. (See related story) The temporary facility at the converted auditorium averaged about 84 inmates last week, which is within 17 of its capacity. It has surpassed capacity at times.

"It creeps up gradually," says Capt. Roberta Moffatt, who oversees the jail operations. Moffatt says she will set up cots in the temporary jail if necessary.

On Thursday, 27 of the 77 inmates housed at the temporary facility were awaiting hearings or sentencing for misdemeanor, traffic and felony offenses. The rest were serving sentences, court records show.

Jail overcrowding certainly affects the way other judges look at bail.

"That does, unfortunately, have to play a part in the decision making in setting bond," says County Judge Richard Boylston, who sits in Tavares. Boylston added that he usually follows the Circuit's bail schedule "unless there's something unusual" about the case.

"The main purpose of bond is to ensure the attendance of the defendant at all hearings," said Peyton Hyslop, county judge in Hernando. He said the circuit judge in Hernando rarely reduces a bail amount that he sets.

In Citrus, though, the disparity between the two judges on the bail issue forces prosecutors and defense attorneys to carefully plan their strategy.

Planning strategy

Assistant State Attorney Porter said she didn't even argue in June when Thelmo Johnson asked Thurman for a lower bail.

The 45-year-old Tampa man is accused of driving the "getaway car" for men who allegedly robbed the Floral City branch of the U.S. Postal Service, court records show.

Graham, citing Johnson's criminal record, set the amount at $20,000. The defense sought $2,000.

Porter said she didn't object for fear that Thurman would slash the bail amount even further.