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Woman's freedom doesn't last long

Inmates were freed to ease overcrowding, but one of the first out is back in jail.

By JONATHAN ABEL
Published May 4, 2007


Abdeslam Rahmouni could have been angry at the Pinellas Sheriff's Office for letting Margaret Martinsen go free; instead, he feels sorry about the whole situation.

On April 20, the Sheriff's Office released 25 inmates, thanks to an administrative order designed to ease overcrowding. Martinsen was among the first group.

Six days later, police said Martinsen, 51, came into Rahmouni's Largo convenience store down the street from her apartment, tossed a few vulgar words at the clerk, and tried to steal a couple of four-packs of Natural Ice beer.

The clerk called the police, and Martinsen quickly became the first of the released inmates, and as of Thursday the only one, to have been rearrested.

Rahmouni wishes the clerk had handled it without calling the police.

He wishes there had been some other way to help her. "I told my employee, 'I don't think she meant to insult you.'"

Officials said it was bound to happen. Released inmates tend to find their way back to the jail, and Martinsen certainly won't be the last.

In the case that first put Martinsen in jail, a judge ordered her to undergo a psychological evaluation for competency. It was unclear Thursday whether that evaluation had taken place.

Martinsen's case illustrates the challenges facing an overcrowded jail, officials say. And speaking generally, they noted the jail's overcrowding is only exacerbated by a justice system turned repository for the mentally ill.

"I don't think anybody in the system is going to be surprised by the fact that there was a rearrest, particularly if it's of a mentally ill person," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger.

Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats said there are more than 1,500 people in the county on pretrial release. Some of them reoffend, and their release is revoked.

The difference in Martinsen's case, Coats said, is that her release was authorized not by a judge, but by the Sheriff's Office.

"This lady could have finished her sentence, then been released and commit the same crime," Coats said.

"Maybe she needs to be referred to a resource other than the jail."

The Sheriff's Office's newfound power derives from an April order by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Chief Judge David Demers, which authorized the sheriff to free some inmates.

The order was an attempt to reduce the jail population, which is now around 3,350 - well above the design capacity of 2,500.

Martinsen found her way into the jail on March 30 after she scratched a woman's car by dragging a book across it. A judge ordered a psychological evaluation to determine her competency.

Like many of the inmates in the first batch of releases, Martinsen could have been free if she had more money to pay her bail. At one point, her bond was just $100.

The cost to taxpayers for holding an inmate is more than $90 per day.

Easing overcrowding not only improves conditions in the jail but also eases the strain on the budget.

"In consideration of this looming tax crisis that we're all facing, we either have to bite the bullet and build more jail space, or we're going to have to tolerate these types of situations," said Largo police Chief Lester Aradi, whose officer arrested Martinsen. "It's the reality of what we're facing."

"Am I surprise it happened? No," said Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney for Pasco and Pinellas. "I would expect that if they continue to release people in all likelihood you'll see more."

Bartlett noted inmates who are released are usually accused of crimes that fall in the category where officers can choose to give suspects a notice to appear in court rather than booking them in jail.

Martinsen was being held Thursday night at the jail in lieu of $500 bail.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.