Judge gives offenders face time
By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Nearly every week, Circuit Judge Ric A. Howard comes face to face with Citrus residents who have violated their probation. They drank too much, stole something, drove without a license, forged a check.
Prison time is a typical consequence for the repeat offenders.
That's why Howard is implementing the Judicial Monitoring Program, an initiative that has cut down on probation violations in Miami-Dade County since a circuit judge created it there more than a year ago.
The goal is to establish more encouraging, intimate face time between the sentencing judge and defendants outside the courtroom in hopes that, eventually, the offenders will get out of the judicial system altogether.
In a time of budget constraints and cutbacks, judges have to find creative solutions, Howard said.
"I see there's a need for this," Howard said. "Probationers say encouraging words from the judges are the No. 1 thing that help them."
The program's structure is simple. The judge will set up three or four sessions with a defendant who has been sentenced to probation, community control or diversion, the alternative to traditional prosecution for first-time offenses. They'll meet in a hearing room, and no court reporter or clerk will be present.
Discussion topics will run the gamut: mental health issues, emotional maturity, employment, victim's concerns and the seriousness of the crime. Howard will ask about a defendant's progress obtaining a GED or a driver's license.
Then he'll try to motivate the person to stay on course and successfully complete a sanction. He won't give legal advice or comment on a participant's case. He'll just act as a cheerleader, albeit one who could impose harsher sanctions if the defendant slips up again.
Participants will be identified by defense attorney, the State Attorney's Office, law enforcement or probation officers.
"It's only for selected individuals we think might need a little more encouragement," Howard said. "It's not going to be a criticism session."
The judge learned of a similar program last fall while attending a week of advanced judicial studies in Clearwater. Circuit Judge Jeffrey Rosinek began the program in Miami mainly to provide alternative sanctions for substance abusers who had committed other crimes such as theft but were ineligible for drug court.
In little more than a year, 19 of the 20 criminal judges in the 11th Judicial Circuit are serving as mentors to about 500 participants. They promote sobriety and often try to help defendants get permanent housing, jobs or education, Rosinek said recently.
Those who make progress have fewer or more spaced out meetings with their assigned judge, and initial statistics are indicating decent success in lowering violation of probation rates, he said.
"They are finally getting the message: Substance abuse is really causing them to come through the revolving door of the court," Rosinek said. "The key is to give somebody a different type of opportunity to salvage his or her life without having to go to prison."
Rosinek was pleased to hear his peer in Citrus would soon begin mimicking the judicial mentoring program. At a recent Citrus County Bar Association meeting, Howard's proposal also earned approval.
Some lawyers have had questions: Who would be present at the meetings? What would happen if a participant didn't show? Could Howard use that as an excuse to hand down a tougher sanction?
For safety, a deputy will sit in on every session, Howard said. A probation and parole officer also will be there. The defendant's lawyer, a representative from the State Attorney's Office and any family member or supporter of the defendant would be welcome, the judge said.
Assistant State Attorney William Catto said the program could be useful, noting that one of the main problems in the judicial system is irresponsible defendants.
Jim Cummins, president of the local bar association, also okayed the program but said he wished the probation system got enough funding to make such intervention by a judge unnecessary. He said probation officers are supposed to be mentors but that role has been diminished with funding and staffing limitations.
"The best of all worlds, the way I see it, is to have a probation department that is properly funding to do what the judge wants to do," said Cummins, a defense attorney. "I'm not opposed to the program, but I still think it would be better if the people who were meant to (mentor) could."
Howard likely will meet with the mentoring program's first participants next week. He plans to start small, meeting for an hour or so with four to six defendants.
He said he won't supersede a probation officer's role. He doesn't believe no-shows will be a problem, but, when pressed, he said the law would then allow him to rule that those individuals might not be fit for probation.
"I would assume at that point that they don't have a positive attitude about their own rehabilitation," he said.
He prefers, however, to focus on the good that might come from the program. Area advocates are pushing for a mental health court, but there isn't money for that specialty, he said. The judicial monitoring program might be the closest thing to such a court in Citrus, he said, because he will watch out particularly for people suffering from mental illness.
The judge runs into many cases where defendants stop taking their medications and then get into trouble, so he will tell them at their sessions that he expects them to adhere to their prescriptions.
"We're probably going to save a lot of taxpayers' dollars," he said. But "it's going to be baby steps at first."
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