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Some South Florida judges are blasting an Internet site sponsored by the bail bond industry that attacks the decisions of state court judges to grant nonmonetary release of criminal defendants before trial. Since last spring, a group called Concerned Citizens for Pre-Trial Compliance, which includes bail bond agents, has been operating a Miami-based Web site called floridasrevolvingdoor.com. The site currently lists 49 pretrial release decisions by 12 judges in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Manatee and Sarasota counties. The listings include descriptions of defendants’ rap sheets and sarcastic comments about the judges. The site decries what it calls the judges’ “outrageous violations of the public trust,” and says that “it is the moral duty of taxpayers” to retaliate “at the ballot box.” Critics of the bail industry say the Web site reflects the bond agents’ anxiety about efforts to increase judges’ use of pretrial release services that eliminate the requirement that defendants post monetary bond. Bond agents claim that monetary bond is the best guarantee that defendants will return for later court appearances. The critics note that bond agents’ revenues depend on the fees they charge to post bail on behalf of defendants. In an interview, Ray de la Cabada, a Miami criminal defense attorney who represents a group called the South Florida Bail Underwriters Association, criticized judges for “overuse of pretrial release services” — court programs under which defendants are released without posting bail and regularly report their whereabouts to the court. De la Cabada said the Web site is the product of “a coalition of people,” including his group of bail bond agents. The concerned citizens group behind the Internet site has a nonexistent Miami address and no phone number. Some judges are fighting back. In a blistering letter to Palm Beach County Commission Chairwoman Karen Marcus in November, Palm Beach County Court Judge Nelson Bailey, who is targeted by the Web site, said the site was the work of “some within the bail bond industry in Miami-Dade” who believe they have government officials “and even judges in the industry’s pockets.” According to Bailey, the Miami-Dade bail bond agents believe they can “influence Miami-Dade judges to set [cash] bonds in all or nearly all criminal cases,” thereby generating business for the bail bond agents. He said the Web site is an effort to expand the bond industry’s clout to Palm Beach County. He called it “an unmitigated effort to impose an intellectually corrupt bias to our decisions about setting bonds.” The Web site’s aggressive style also has dismayed some members of the bail bond industry, which has made an effort to mend fences with the judiciary. The bond agents and the bench have clashed repeatedly in recent years over legislation that would restrict the use of nonmonetary bond. According to the Department of Justice, the percentage of felony defendants released on bail posted through bond agents in Palm Beach County shrank from 35 percent in 1992 to 29 percent in 2000, the most recent year for which statistics are available. But in Miami-Dade and Broward, the numbers in that period increased — moderately in Broward, from 38 percent to 40 percent, and dramatically in Miami-Dade, from 1 percent to 29 percent. In last year’s legislative session, bail industry leaders were defeated in their effort to pass measures that would have limited the discretion of first-appearance judges to order nonmonetary release, required separate bail amounts on each charge, and eliminated the presumption of a right to nonmonetary bond. Legislation under consideration this year would authorize bonds agents to contract with courts to provide electronic monitoring of released defendants in exchange for fees independent of bail. The measure has drawn little notice or opposition so far. “The world is too round to get into a pissing contest,” said Aventura-based lobbyist Ron Book, who represents West Palm Beach-based industry group BAIL Florida. “When you deal with judges and officials a conciliatory approach is a much better way to get there.” In Miami-Dade, Gerald Klein, a retired circuit judge who sits as a senior judge for first-appearance hearings — the point at which many pretrial release decisions are made — is listed on the Web site for 23 nonmonetary release decisions. Klein was unavailable for comment. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Manuel Crespo, who frequently sits at first-appearance hearings on weekends, is cited only once. But the site said “his courtroom its [sic] a circus.” In Palm Beach County, the Web site’s leading targets are County Court Judges Bailey and Sheree Cunningham, who have frequently been assigned to preside at first appearance hearings. Bailey was cited seven times and Cunningham four. Circuit Judges Hubert Lindsey, Richard Wennet, and Kenneth Stern and County Court Judge Donald Hafele also are listed. In an interview, Judge Crespo acknowledged that first-appearance hearings are frequently chaotic. But he defended his nonmonetary release decision in the one cited case, saying the defendant appeared as scheduled for subsequent court dates and is now serving a three-year sentence. Crespo also defended the growing practice of pretrial release without monetary bond, saying that it works. But he said some bail bonds agents don’t like it because they “don’t have any financial gain.” De la Cabada acknowledged that bail bond agents profit from the use of monetary bail, but he called Crespo’s statement “a way to sweep the issue under the rug.” Judge Bailey said an early version of the Web site included the name of Jenny Garcia, who owns and operates several Miami bail bond services and is a director of the Miami-Dade Bail Coordinators Association. When contacted, Garcia referred all questions to de la Cabada. De la Cabada said judges have “turned the presumption of innocence inside-out.” He said the use of nonmonetary bail “gives defendants no incentive to appear” and offers “lesser protection for the public” than monetary bail. The Web site calls pretrial release programs “taxpayer funded.” But many criminal justice professionals say the programs actually save money because they relieve the public of the costs of incarceration. And Judge Bailey said monetary bond is not the guarantee bonds agents make it out to be. According to Bailey, the percentage of Palm Beach County defendants freed on monetary bond who later fail to appear in court is three times that of the percentage of those released without monetary bond. According to Palm Beach Circuit Court records, those freed on nonmonetary release fail to appear in 4.8 percent of cases while those freed on monetary bail fail to appear in 15 percent of such cases. De la Cabada called such assertions and statistics “bogus.” He said his group has not been able to find any such evidence to support the efficacy of nonmonetary release programs. In his letter to Karen Marcus, Judge Bailey said the Web site’s sponsors had made “the fundamental mistake of believing that judges cannot and therefore will not respond to such attacks. Big mistake. BIG MISTAKE!” But de la Cabada said Bailey’s charge of undue political influence by bonds agents in Miami-Dade was “absurd.” He said bonds agents are politically active but that their campaign contributions to judicial candidates are based on which judges they perceive as fair in their decisions. De la Cabada acknowledged, however, that Bailey’s public criticism of his group and its Web site had hurt the group’s effort to recruit Palm Beach County bond agents. “He’s obsessed,” de la Cabada said. “They don’t want to antagonize him.” De la Cabada said Bailey was particularly upset because there are judicial elections this year. But Bailey, whose current term runs through 2007, argues that the information posted on the Web site could imperil criminal defendants who are cooperating with police investigations. He noted that the site’s current listings include the case of a defendant released on supervision at the prosecutor’s request despite being charged with fencing more than $250,000 in stolen goods. “By broadcasting all such releases to the public,” Bailey wrote in his November letter, the site “may be effectively providing other criminals with a potentially complete listing of all defendants in major criminal cases who are cooperating with police investigations.” Rather than fighting nonmonetary pretrial release programs, Bailey said, bail bond should start setting up programs to contract with counties to administer them.

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