Yesterday, I sat down with a local judge to discuss the skyrocketing costs of the Escambia County detention program – up $12.5 million since the summer of 2013 – and how to better management the county’s criminal justice system. He said county officials have shown no interest in managing the costs of criminal justice.
“They have known for years that this day was coming, spent all the insurance proceeds, and did nothing,” he told me.
The judge said the county’s parole, probation and pre-trial diversion programs have no metrics to determine their effectiveness. He said, “What you have is a bunch of bureaucrats working with no idea if what they’re doing works.”
Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan called into to “Pensacola Speaks” on Wednesday afternoon. He pointed out the Escambia Board of County Commissioners commissioned a study to assess the court system and analysis pre-trial services and the county jail when Sheriff Ron McNesby ran the jail. However, the county disagreed with the findings of the report, especially the section regarding pre-trial services, and refused to pay the consultants.
In 2013, in the months before the BCC took over the jail, Sheriff Morgan tried to get interim County Administrator George Touart and Commission chairman Gene Valentino to pay the consultant and release the final report. They refused to do it.
Justice Concepts Incorporated (JCI) began in March 2008 a $140,000 county-funded court assessment study that was expanded by four months later for an additional $102,362 to cover Pre-Trial Services (PTR) and an analysis of the Escambia County Jail.
JCI has focused extensively on revamping the PTR and getting the program in line with Florida statutes. The consultant team conducted 10 site visits in the first 12 months.
The company drafted a new administrative order for PTR, which Chief Judge Kim Skievaski signed, that abolished the 48-hour requirement for a defendant to make his or her first court appearance. Other recommendations include
- Restructuring of the Pre-Trial Services and new policies and procedures for better mental evaluation of defendants prior to their appearance before the judge.
- PTR staff provide increased support to the Court at first appearance and should be conducting interviews of eligible defendants. JCI questioned the position of the agency to not provide recommendations to the judges, a common practice in other PTR programs. In fact, JCI wrote that it was “common for the State’s Attorney, Public Defender and PTR to share information, as well as develop recommendations to the judges.”
- PTR use an objective, quantifiable instrument to measure risk to the community, as well as risk to appear at future court hearings.
- PTR forensic mental health screeners be available for immediate referral and assessment as defendants are being booked.
- PTR should re-interview detainees who are not released at first appearance, or released under bonds.
- PTR have an office at the Jail for ready access to defendants.
The consultants also recommended a series of new forms to be used by PTR staff: PreTrial Release Assessment, PreTrial Release Rating Report and PreTrial Release Summary. The overall goal was to bring the PTR program in compliance with recommended best practices advocated by the Pretrial Justice Center in Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately the county only paid lip service to key recommendations. When JCI returned to follow up, the consultants found some recommendations and forms were no longer being used. Though the JCI was essentially completed its work in 2012, Touart refused to pay the final $35,304 due claiming the the report had “material deficiencies.”
Concerns raised by the county pertained entirely to the study’s findings related to PTR. The report suggested that the involved parties—the sheriff’s office, the offices of the state attorney and public defenders, and the county— “must commit to improving the delivery of services at the front end of the criminal justice system.”
“An effective Pretrial Services function can save counties millions of dollars annually,” the report’s authors wrote to county in response to staff’s concerns. “Without question, the pretrial services’ role is catalytic to the process. JCI has assisted many jurisdictions in the improvement of the ‘front end’ processes, those appreciating millions of dollars through the demand reduction of jail bed days, significantly diminishing the numbers of individuals incarcerated, and increasing the community based supervision options the latter a fraction of the jail per diems.”
Touart and his staff argued that pretrial issues raised by the report were either off base, or out of date. They requested that the company revise its report prior to being paid in full; the consulting company, meanwhile, JCI stuck to its original recommendations concerning PTR.
JCI never received its final payment. The study that may have saved Escambia County “millions of dollars annually” went unreleased, and its recommendations were ignored.
Meanwhile, the County took control of the Escambia County Jail on Oct. 1, 2013. The CBD exploded the following April. And now four years later, the proposed budget for detention has soared to $40.8 million.
Earlier reports on JCI study: