Fla. county may end controversial work-release program

The program came under scrutiny after Jeffrey Epstein was said to have had 'improper sexual conduct' while on work-release


Hannah Morse
The Palm Beach Post

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — An initial report by a county criminal justice panel recommends that the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office give "serious consideration" to ending its controversial work-release program.

Due to high costs and that only a handful of work-release programs operate in Florida, "it seems clear that the program provides little benefit and should be discontinued," the Palm Beach County Criminal Justice Commission concludes in its draft report on the program.

The Palm Beach County Stockade in Palm Beach, Fla. The county may discontinue its work-release program in favor of in-house arrests. (Photo/TNS)
The Palm Beach County Stockade in Palm Beach, Fla. The county may discontinue its work-release program in favor of in-house arrests. (Photo/TNS)

The report is not final and its conclusions may be changed, denied or approved by the commission and one of its committees this month. Sheriff Ric Bradshaw will have the last say whether to accept or reject the recommendations.

The county's work-release program, established in 1977, received scrutiny and criticism in July after convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein was said to have had "improper sexual conduct" while on work-release, according to a lawyer representing a dozen of Epstein's accusers. Epstein was approved for the work-release program while serving 13 months for two prostitution charges in 2008.

An official with Criminal Justice Commission said the recommendation is not based on a "particular case."

Bradshaw stopped accepting prisoners into the program in August and asked the commission to take closely review the program's operations and "to look toward the future of the program and not an examination of the high-profile case of the past," according to the 24-page draft.

The panel's review covered the period between January 2014 and August 2019, years after Epstein was released.

Kristina Henson, executive director of the Criminal Justice Commission, said the commission's job is to review the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of programs.

"We're not an investigative body," she said. "We're not here to find wrongdoing. We're not here to look at what happened in a particular case."

During the six-year study period, just 56 prisoners participated in the work-release program, representing 0.2 percent of the county's jail population. By comparison, 181 prisoners, or 9.5 percent of the jail population, took part in the in-house arrest program, which uses electronic monitoring to track them at their homes rather than in jail, the report found.

On average, participants spent about four months in the work-release program, according to the draft.

Housing each work-release program participant costs about $170 per day, the commission determined. It costs $135 per day to house one jail inmate and $35 a day for one participant in the in-house arrest program to cover staff and monitoring contract fees.

Henson noted that more and more corrections facilities are using electronic monitoring over work release as technology has improved.

"The (work-release) program is utilized very rarely," Henson said.

Only five Florida counties have work-release programs. The sheriff's offices in Palm Beach County and Jacksonville run their programs, while the local governments of Alachua, Escambia and Orange counties are in charge of their respective programs.

While the other counties' programs have dedicated work-release facilities with either minimum or medium security, Palm Beach County's is the only program where participants are housed in maximum security facilities, which was described in the draft as "highly disproportional" and could lead to accidental releases or contraband making its way into the jail.

The commission described no other problems or concerns with Palm Beach County's work-release program, and said most of the participants successfully completed the program since 2014.

If the sheriff's office continues the program, the draft report offers some suggestions to make improvements, like having separate policies for the work-release and in-house arrest programs; require work-release participants to have health insurance; and update the 25-year-old daily subsistence fee, which is currently between $6 and $12 per participant per day.

Otherwise, the draft report recommends that the work-release program should end in favor of the in-house arrest program.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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