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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Judge Hatcher Gives Reasons For Termination of Public Works Program For County Prisoners

Court’s Pre-Trial Release Program is Also Being


Judge Woodrow Hatcher has issued a response to inquires from local media regarding the termination of the Jackson County Court’s Public Works Program. The Court’s Pre-Trial Release Program is also presently under review by the Court.

The Public Works Program was implemented in 1978 by the County Court in response to a federal investigation which would mandate reducing the jail population due to overcrowding at the Jackson County Jail. The alternatives to reducing this overcrowding was to release inmates early without their having to serve complete sentences, or instead, developing a system which could sensibly reduce the jail population.

The idea of Public Works came about when it was brought to my attention that many of the older grave yards in the county were not maintained, and members in those communities were looking for help. It was with the assistance of former Sheriff John McDaniel’s father, John P. McDaniel that we were able to start the Public Works Program. Sheriff Charles Applewhite was then in charge of the Sheriff’s Department and the Jail. He was very supportive of the Public Works Program, and his staff cooperated with Mr. McDaniel in getting inmates ready to go out to work and clearing security upon their return.

The County Commission was approached about buying equipment for their use (lawn mowers, slings, hoes, shovels, etc.) but did not approve the purchase. Mr. McDaniel was not deterred and he purchased all of the equipment at his own expense and volunteered his time for supervision at all times. The program was of tremendous help to those communities in the outlying areas of the county in maintaining grave sites. It often became a community affair, with members of the local community becoming involved by providing lunches and often working jointly in the program.

The prisoners who participated all volunteered for the program. In return, the County Court gave them a day off their sentence for each day they performed community work. As a result of the Public Works Program, the jail population was reduced to a level which satisfied Federal requirements, thus avoiding forced releases. Also, in addition to providing free labor for the county, the program reduced the costs associated with the incarceration of prisoners.

After the death of Mr. McDaniel, the Court could not find a volunteer who was as dedicated as Mr. McDaniel, and the Court had to make adjustments in the Public Works Program. The Court, and the recently elected Sheriff John McDaniel, worked together in contacting different departments within the County as well as the Cities in the county. We were then able to re-establish the Public Works Program on a restructured basis. It operated in this manner until the recent termination.

The Court had over time received reports regarding unacceptable conduct by prisoners and the lack of supervision of prisoners, which created a safety issue for our communities. It appeared that no one wanted to accept responsibility and provide direct supervision of the prisoners.

The Court’s concern for public safety, unacceptable conduct by prisoners, and other factors prompted the Court to re-evaluate the Public Works Program to determine whether the Court could justify its continuation.

The Court applied the following criteria in the re-evaluation of the Public Works Program:

1. Benefits to the County and the County Jail derived from utilizing free prison lablor.

2. Cost savings to the County by reduced incarceration time earned by working in the Program.

3. Impact on potential for overcrowding of the Jail, a problem which no longer applies.

4. The fact that the citizens of Jackson County are safer when prisoners are kept in jail instead of working in the communities under minimum supervision.

5. The security risks created at the Jail when prisoners leave to work in the communities and then return to the facility. The opportunities for smuggling contraband into the facility are greatly increased.

Based on the above criteria, it was the Court’s belief the problems presented by the Program outweighed the benefits to the County, therefore, it was the Court’s decision to terminate the Program.

The Court has also decided to re-evaluate the Court’s Pre-Trial Release Program since the Pre-Trial Program presents some of the same safety issues for the County.

Every day the Jackson County Court makes Judicial decisions on individuals who are charged with serious crimes. With very few exceptions these individuals are entitled to secure their freedom through reasonable means and remain free until their case reaches a final disposition. The Court has tried over the years through its Pre-Trial Release Program to make every effort to reach decisions which provide a higher degree of safety for our County, and also provide a Release Plan which is fair to the individual charged with a crime.

However, because of the uncertain times in our nation, state, and even here in Jackson County, concerns abound about the safety of its citizens. These concerns have reached a point where there are now proposals in the Florida Legislature to review and make changes on Pre-Trial Releases which would apply to Courts statewide.

The Court also agrees that times have changed since the Court first implemented its Pre-Trial Release Program, and thus the Program should be re-evaluated. A determination needs to be made as to whether the Court’s Pre-Trial Release Program is providing the best release decisions possible, and whether it should be modified or terminated.

The criteria the Court is using to re-evaluate the Court’s Pre-Trial program is as follows:

1. What type of release can best protect the citizens of the county?

2. What type of release is fair to the individual who is arrested and placed in jail?

3. Should the financial inability to make bond at time of arrest be a factor?

4. Should overcrowding at the jail be a factor?

5. Should a bail bond schedule be available at the Jail, as it is in other counties, so that if an individual has the needed money they would be able to secure their freedom quickly without having to stay in jail for an appearance before the Judge?

6. Is this Court’s Conditional Pre-Trial Release the best alternative for protecting the citizens of Jackson County?

The Court plans to establish two committees to analyze both programs. The Public Works Program Committee will have members consisting of the Chief Correctional Officer at the County Jail, Chief County Probation Officer, a County Commissioner, the County Administrator, and two citizen members from the County. The Court will also establish a committee to study the Court’s Pre-Trial Release Program. This committee will consist of a representative from the State Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Chief County Probation Office, and two citizen members of the community, and a County Commissioner.

Once these committees have finished their analysis and developed recommendations, the Court will reach a decision as to the future of the Public Works Program and the Pre-Trial Release Program.

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