Last year, 62 percent of all probation violations in Charlotte County were technical violations, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.
That means there were no new laws broken. Individuals simply failed to comply with the conditions of their probation. They may have tested positive for drugs or alcohol, arrived home 15 minutes past their curfew, or failed to inform their probation officer when they moved to a new residence.
For many, these simple violations end in months in jail and thousands of dollars spent on court fines and attorney fees.
"If you're on probation and let's just say it's a technical violation or testing positive for marijuana, you're going to get arrested," said local defense attorney Steven Leskovich. "There's no bond on your warrant. Now you've lost your job because you are incarcerated. You may not be able to pay bills, child support. In a matter of two to three weeks, it can disrupt an entire family unit."
But soon, the Department of Corrections plans to change the way it handles these types of violations. Under a new alternative sanctions program, offenders would face consequences that don't involve an arrest or jail time.
"Alternative sanctions give offenders who have violated the technical terms of their supervision help for the underlying issues causing them to recidivate, rather than just sending them straight back to jail or prison," said DOC Deputy Press Secretary Paul Walker. "A technical violation could be a positive drug test, in which an offender may have the option of drug treatment in lieu of a ticket back to jail."
It's not clear exactly when the program will be in place, though Walker said the chief judge has given approval for the program to be implemented throughout the 20th Judicial Circuit, which includes Charlotte, Lee, Collier, Hendry, and Glades counties. As soon as an an administrative order authorizing the program is prepared and signed, it will begin.
"Chief Judge Michael T. McHugh recognizes the value of an alternative sanctioning program for technical violations of probation and community control," said Sara Miles, spokesperson for the 20th Judicial Circuit. "The AOC (Administrative Office of the Courts) anticipates an Administrative Order being entered in the near future which will authorize the DOC to utilize this program."
Sixteen of the 20 circuits in Florida are currently using the program, including 49 of 67 counties.
In the 12th Judicial Circuit, which includes Sarasota, DeSoto, and Manatee counties, the administrative order authorizing the program states "arresting and incarcerating certain non-violent offenders for minor violations of probation or community control is both expensive and nonproductive," and "there is research to support that recidivism may be reduced by utilizing collaborative efforts among the courts, probation and law enforcement to hold the offender accountable and apply swift and certain sanctions for technical violations of probation or community control."
The sanctions for each type of violation are laid out, which include things like extra reporting, curfew, electronic monitoring, and drug treatment. To participate, individuals must admit to the violation, and a judge must approve the proposed sanction.
Offenders with three or more previous violations are not eligible, nor is anyone with a new law violation, an absconder, or anyone who has violated a no contact order.
Defense Attorney Russell Kirshy said he thinks it sounds like an "amazing idea," comparing the program to drug court and mental health court which offer sanctions for those who violate while continuing to help them succeed.
"You have several opportunities if you mess up, because everybody knows if you have people who are addicted to drugs, they aren't successful right away," he said. "They have fits and starts. I think that's the way it is for everything. If you've engaged in committing criminal acts, you're not just going to turn into a law abiding citizen overnight because the judge tells you to."
Kirshy said as things are now, most people who go to jail for a probation violations are there without bond anywhere from 30 days to six months.
"Honestly, it tends to destroy people's lives when they get held in custody with no bond for 60 or 90 days," he said. "At that point, it's very difficult to keep a job, to keep a house, to keep your life together. Some of us don't live month to month, but the average person in the criminal justice system lives month to month. Unless somebody outside is maintaining your household, I would find it very difficult to imagine someone going in for 60 to 90 days and coming out and still having the life they left."