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Pre-trial release program limits pass House committee

By Sascha Cordner


Tallahassee, FL – A bill that would limit who can enter pre-trial release programs is now heading to the House Floor, after a House committee passed the bill Thursday. But, As Sascha Cordner reports, many opponents of the controversial measure say it will lead to a rise in jail populations and cost tax payers money.

With more than an hour of debate and with lawmakers decidedly on both sides of the fence, a bill still passed in the House Judiciary Committee that would limit the people who are eligible for pre-trial release programs. Republican Representative Chris Dorworth of Heathrow is sponsoring the bill that would be limited to:

"people who are truly indigent, people who are poor and actually we set the term to be three times the federal poverty level, so it even includes what is actually as referred to as the committee meetings as the working poor. It would make sure that those people are eligible for pre-trial release."

Pre-trial release is run by the county and considered as an alternative for low-risk people instead of jail. Participants would be required to wear ankle bracelets, get drug tested, and/or be checked on periodically. Dorworth says he does not want taxpayers paying to release people from jail, and they should have to go through the process and post bond. Wayne Spath is a bail bonds agent. He spoke in favor of the bill, saying pre-trial programs only take the people who can afford bail.

"I have noticed that being in the bail bond business that pre-trial is not concentrating on the indigent. I personally can tell every committee member that I have watched a young boy stay in jail on a 25-dollar bond for a week because he couldn't pay for a meal and we got him before the court and we paid his bus ticket back. I've seen a person in jail on a hundred dollar bond...an 18 year old girl"

But, Don Bjoring, an employee of the Orange County Corrections department says this bill is really in the interests of the bondsmen.

"I'm here to implore you to listen to the local experts you have on jail issues. Nobody knows how a jail, that particular jail runs best, what influences population growth and declines better than the people that are running the building. To ignore those pleas, is to lead us to enrich the bail bondsmen on the backs of the taxpayers of Florida."

Lawmakers like Representative John Patrick Julien of North Miami Beach says he did not support the bill, after looking at data and listening to the officials from his county.

"I can't speak for other counties, but I can speak for Miami-Dade counties, because they have reached out to me. When I have my county officials, my public defender, my law enforcement officials, and staff analysis is telling me, that there will be, not may be, but there will be a negative fiscal impact if this bill as written passes, then I have to trust those professionals."

One Lawmaker Democratic Representative Richard Steinberg of Miami Beach says he was initially undecided, but after listening to how many sides came together in opposition of this bill, he too would vote against it.

"We might here some departments opposed and some in favor, but there would be some break in the ranks from local government as to whether this is a good idea or a bad idea, but instead we're hearing a unified voice from the counties themselves, from the prosecutors, from the public defenders, and the law enforcement side all saying this is a bad idea that is going to cost us money."

Steinberg says he was also influenced by former Governor Jeb Bush's position on this issue.

"And, he said quote: it is after all, these local officials and law enforcement officers who implemented these programs and believe they work for their communities .We should listen to them carefully as we all strive to increase safety for the citizens in our state and so I will heed Governor Bush's advice and listen to those elected officials and understand that this may have the unintended consequence of increasing costs and diminishing safety."

In its previous committee stop, House Bill 13-79 narrowly passed 7 to 6, and to get more members on board with his bill, Dorworth attached an amendment that would place restrictions on pretrial release programs in counties with populations of more than 350-thousand people, keeping the smaller counties out of it, like Okaloosa. It had the most opposition, but Representative Matt Gaetz called the county's testimony embarrassing.

"And, my reaction to the content of that testimony is one of pure embarrassment, because the content of what we've adopted completely exempts Okaloosa county, as a county under 350-thousand. There's not a county within 50 miles of Okaloosa county that will be affected by Representative Dorworth's bill. And, I certainly hope the taxpayers I represent didn't send anyone here and are not paying for anyone's reimbursements to be here to give this testimony that was totally not germane to the matter before us. If there were lobbyists that told folks to be here, they ought to be fired."

Many lawmakers on the panel addressed Gaetz comments as disrespectful towards the public, and though he was in favor of what Gaetz says to an extent, the bill's sponsor says what the vote would come down to is everyone's perspective:

"If you think the number one value to be uphold is that we need to make sure the government's money is looked out for, well then maybe you should vote against, but if you think the important thing to do is to look out for people who are trying to make money in the private sector, then I suggest you vote yes."

The committee voted favorably on the bill 10-to-8 and it now heads to the House Floor.