Broward County has a history of packing its jails with destitute inmates — so much so that it remains under a 1995 federal order to keep crowding to a minimum.
The solution to the problem has been a pretrial release program that releases low-risk, mostly indigent inmates and monitors them, sometimes with GPS technology. The program, according to almost everyone in the business of public safety in Broward, has been a great success.
It has helped keep the jail at manageable population levels, saving the county millions in incarceration costs.
At a recent meeting, however, Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman made a startling suggestion: She said that it may be time to kill the program, willfully violate the federal order, and overcrowd the jail system with inmates again.
The commissioner said she wanted a "cost-benefit" analysis to see if it would be cheaper for the tenth-largest jail system in America to violate the order and pay federal fines of $1,000 a day or more than continue to fund the release program.
"When I look at what we would pay if the jail were overcapacity versus what we're paying for the program, we're probably better off letting the jail be overcapacity, and we'll save more money that way," Lieberman said during the November 13 commission meeting.
The idea is outrageous. Not only does Lieberman endorse violating the law, but her idea would also add tens of millions of dollars in jail costs for housing the extra inmates and likely prompt the feds to force Broward County to build a new $70 million jail. On top of that, it would leave hundreds of inmates, most of them simply too poor to post a small bond, to rot in jail for no good reason.
Yet Lieberman isn't alone on the commission in at least wanting to cut some of the funding for the program, even as the Broward Sheriff's Office, State Attorney's Office, Public Defenders Office, and Clerk of the Court oppose the idea.
In fact, an ordinance has been proposed to limit the program that will be discussed at a public hearing next month.
The question: Who got to Lieberman and the rest of the commissioners?
The answer: A lobbyist. Of course.
And it's not just any lobbyist. It's their lobbyist, Ron Book, who makes about $50,000 a year in taxpayers' money to lobby for Broward County in Tallahassee.
Book has been hired by the Broward County Bail Bondsmen Association to hobble the pretrial release program, which right now is monitoring about 2,200 criminal defendants. The program, after all, puts a dent in the bail bonds business. Most of the inmates chosen for the program get out of jail on their own recognizance — which of course doesn't require posting a bond.
Book's ordinance would preclude non-indigent inmates from participating. Currently, they make up about 40 percent of the program. A second version has been hammered out that singles out only non-indigent inmates who have committed dangerous crimes or have a history of missing court dates. The change would force them to pay a bond to get out of jail and, ultimately, force more people facing trial to sit in jail.
And it would also allow bail bondsmen to get their hands into more pockets.
Of all the public officials who think the ordinance Book has cooked up is a bad idea — and there are plenty of them — none are more outspoken than Public Defender Howard Finkelstein.
"The people that work in the system, that run the system, whose mission is justice and equal justice, say, 'Don't do this,'" Finkelstein told the commission during the November 13 meeting. "Mr. Book says, 'Do it.' And we're going to do it? Don't sell out the justice system."
Of course, that's not how the industry describes the effort. Veteran Fort Lauderdale bondsman Wayne Spath , who is a member of the county's public safety advisory board, says it's all about "accountability."
"I make them go to court," he said of criminal defendants. "And we think the program should concentrate on indigent people. Don't give people who can afford it a get-out-of-jail-free card."
Spath is a businessman, and you can't begrudge him and his brethren for trying to write more jail bonds. And there are surely some advantages to having bondsmen keeping track of the defendants.
But the facts don't seem to back up his assertion that the pretrial release program isn't accountable.
The program, which was expanded last January with an infusion of $2.7 million in county money, has worked smoothly, says Kristina Gulick, who heads BSO's Department of Community Control. She says that only one to four percent of the 5,700 inmates who have gone through the program in the last year absconded, depending on how you count them.