Broward County's jails are chronically overcrowded because the justice system moves too slowly, leaving defendants incarcerated for longer and longer periods, federal jail consultants said Friday.
The consultants, hired by the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Corrections, spread the blame evenly among the county's law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges, saying that the entire system needs streamlining.
"It's not cases, it's not population ... it's your policies and procedures," said consultant Tim Schnacke. "You have the ability to stem the tide."
Sheriff Ken Jenne requested the study in September because of recent overcrowding. The jail has struggled with the issue since the 1970s, when a group of inmates sued, saying that overcrowding violated their civil rights. A federal monitor still keeps an eye on jail conditions as a result of that lawsuit.
The consultants gathered data from Broward County's five jails and presented it at the Sheriff's Office for the first time Friday. They found that the average daily jail population jumped about 17 percent from 2002 to 2006, even though the number of defendants and criminal cases remained flat. They said the overcrowding is caused by an increase from 27 to 32 days in the average stay of a defendant during those years.
The consultants were aghast to find 160 people in jail for more than 11/2 years and 62 of those there for more than two years.
"Folks, this doesn't happen," said consultant Marie VonNostrand.. "We don't chart it nationally because this doesn't happen."
They also found that the jails had a much larger percentage of people awaiting trial than the national average.
The consultants' recommendations include:
Streamline early hearings to quickly take care of pleas and bail issues.
Evaluate more people for pretrial release.
Expand drug court to include repeat offenders and other drug-related crimes.
Make bond hearings more flexible.
Speed up violation of probation cases and consider not jailing those who violate their probations on technicalities.
Reduce continuances and delays in criminal cases.
Most people who heard the results weren't surprised by the findings.
"I think it just encouraged everybody to go back and redouble their efforts," said Jeff Marcus, chief of the Broward State Attorney's Office's felony division.
Public Defender Howard Finkelstein discounted most of the proposed solutions and homed in on the 975 people in jail this week with bail amounts of $5,000 or less. He said those people have been deemed a low risk to society and are being held simply because they're poor.
"How much money you have in your possession is irrelevant to whether or not you should be released," he said.
He suggested that people with such low bail should be released on their own recognizance if they're poor to reduce overcrowding.
Henry W. Mack, chairman of the Broward County Public Safety Coordinating Council, said the presentation was useful. The county created the council in 1987 to solve the county's jail overcrowding.
"I'm having some new thoughts," Mack said. "Our next meeting is going to be a very fruitful one."
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By Brian Haas
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Brian Haas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org