Pinellas County, Florida, Reduces Reliance on Bail and Jail
A headline in today’s St. Petersburg Times paints a frightening picture of the Pinellas County criminal justice system: “Thousands of Pinellas jail inmates released without a judge ever setting bail.” But the facts in the article paint quite a different picture: a seemingly well-functioning criminal justice system in which people arrested for low-level crimes and not assessed to be a safety or flight risk — the opening anecdote describes a gentleman arrested for cocaine possession — are spared the indignity of checking into jail (complete with strip search) and the hardship of coming up with a sizable (and nonrefundable) chunk of change for a bail bondsman. (I would be curious to hear from any readers with firsthand experience with the Pinellas County system as to which picture is more accurate.)
The article reports that the Pinellas County sheriff’s department makes extensive use of its authority to “R.O.R.” arrestees (or “release on own recognizance,” with an affidavit promising to appear in court), pursuant to a 2007 administrative order by Chief Deputy Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. Of course, criteria such as community ties and severity of past offenses still factor into the decision whether to require bail. The article really buries the lede, because the headline notwithstanding, so far the results of Gualtieri’s policy don’t seem too bad:
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. …
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. …
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.
Considering that jails around the country are overstuffed with indigent defendants who haven’t been charged with particularly serious crimes but simply can’t afford to make bail, other jurisdictions may want to look to Pinellas County as an example. Of course, I’m sure the bail bonds industry wouldn’t be happy about that.