9 Investigates the high cost of keeping people in jail

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Right now, there are more than 56,000 people in county jails across Florida.  While some inmates have been convicted and are serving sentences less than a year, the vast majority of inmates in the county jail are there awaiting trial, each costing taxpayers every day.

In Orange County, where the jail population is estimated at about 3,000 inmates, the cost of incarceration is $68.73 a day.

Orange County offers a pre-trial release program where inmates are screened to see if they can be released to await their day in court.  While Orange County, along with 26 other Florida counties offers a pretrial release program, few counties have put as much effort into expanding the program as Volusia County, which is realizing dramatic cost savings of about $3 million a year compared to incarceration.

In 1998, Greg Dodge was drunk when he hit a parked car, killing a 10-year old girl on the Turnpike in Palm Beach County.   Following his arrest, he was granted bond and was able to remain out of jail until his conviction.  But not every suspect has the same resources, and may sit behind bars waiting for their day in court, unable to afford bail.

“I put up my house and my parent’s house for that bond,” says Dodge who served 12 years in a state prison before reentering society through Bridges of America in Orlando.

Dodge, who earned his PhD while in prison, now works with other ex-cons as they transition out of prison.  In an interview with 9 Investigates, Dodge said he was able to continue working and keep his job while he awaited trial.

“They don’t need to be sitting in the jail the whole time,” said Ludmilla Lelis of the 7th Judicial Circuit, which includes Volusia County.  “There is a cost savings because we’re not having to put them in the jail.”

In Volusia County, most of the suspects supervised under the program are first-time offenders who have been charged with nonviolent crimes.  The 7th Judicial Circuit found less than 2 percent of people placed in pretrial release missed their court dates.

Although Volusia County hails its program as a success that saves taxpayers money while keeping people out of jail, state leaders have not been as supportive of the program.

In 2010, Orlando Representative Chris Dorworth joined Senator John Thrasher in backing legislation to essentially eliminate pre-trial release. The legislation was backed by bail bondsmen who viewed pre-trial release as competition, although it ultimately failed.  Since 2010, bail bondsmen have given $280,000 to Florida politicians.