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Letter to the Editor: Orlando Business Journal

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“Expansion of pretrial release program threatens bail bond firms” in the March 6, 2012 issue of Orlando Business Journal

We would like the opportunity to address statements made in the article by Don Bjoring, manager of the Community Corrections Division, that public records show are not true.

Orange County Government funded the pretrial release program at the Orange County Jail to the tune of $2 million for fiscal year 2008-2009 – not the $1.45 million Bjoring states in the article. The Community Corrections Division, of which the pretrial release program falls under, is funded at $9.5 million - all paid for by our tax dollars. Bjoring also states in the article that individuals with prior felony convictions, violations of bail status, prior failures to appear or DUI arrests within a certain time frame are not released through the program. In his words, “We just don't release violent people.” This statement is substantially false.

A careful review of the Orange County Corrections registry of defendants released through the pretrial release program reveals that defendants charged with serious and repeat offenses, as well as those with prior felony and violent arrests, are routinely being released without financially secured means.

Individuals arrested for possession (and armed possession) of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, carrying/possessing a concealed firearm, grand theft third degree, theft, burglary, battery, prostitution, DUI and numerous and repeat driving offenses such as no valid driver's license or driving with license suspended/revoked are being released through the pretrial release program. All of these defendants are released “administratively,” which means they never even see a judge.

We contend these are not individuals “who are arrested on relatively minor charges who don't present a threat to public safety,” as stated in the article. And the Orange County Jail is under capacity and has been for several months - so the argument that such releases address jail overcrowding is irrelevant.

The original intent of the pretrial release program was to target indigent defendants and those charged with nonviolent, first-time offenses as an avenue to be released from jail. Today, however, such programs are using tax dollars to compete with private enterprise with a much lower success rate.

In fact, a defendant ordered judiciously into the Orange County pretrial release program can pay more in supervision and drug-testing fees than they would for a one-time bail bond premium. Many judges will order a bond in conjunction with a pretrial release, riding on the coattails of the bail agent who will make sure the defendant appears in court.

The private bail industry continually provides education regarding the public safety benefits it provides. The industry will continue to advocate for less use of taxpayer-funded release programs that historically have higher failure-to-appear rates and fugitive rates. The fact that federal dollars from the stimulus bill can be used by government-funded pretrial release programs to continue to release defendants charged with serious and repeat crimes is a disservice to citizens nationwide.

Our elected officials, policymakers and the media need to have an accurate and clear understanding of how the private bail industry positively affects the criminal justice system - or our critics may find themselves fully responsible for those charged with serious crimes and released back into our communities. Public policy affects public safety.

Melanie Ledgerwood, Director of Government Relations Accredited Surety and Casualty Company, Inc.