Fla. sheriff ends controversial work-release program
The program came under scrutiny after Jeffrey Epstein was said to have had 'improper sexual conduct' while on work-release
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office on Monday said it has decided to no longer oversee a program that puts inmates on work release — a move that comes months after accusations surfaced that sex offender Jeffrey Epstein had years ago exploited the program.
The program came under fire in August amid allegations that Epstein routinely had “improper sexual contact” with women while he was on work release from the county stockade about a decade ago.
Work-release programs allow incarcerated people to leave confinement — whether in jail, on house arrest or in a facility designed to house people in the program — to keep working at their current job. After work, they go back to jail, house arrest or the work-release facility. Palm Beach County’s work-release program was created in 1977.
In August, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw stopped any additional inmates from being placed on work release and directed the county’s Criminal Justice Commission, a 32-member panel that studies law enforcement issues, to review the program’s policies and procedures.
Earlier this month, a task force under the commission recommended keeping the work-release program — and its three current participants — under the Sheriff’s Office. The panel was set to send its final vote to Bradshaw, who has the deciding power.
Before they could vote Monday, Chief Deputy Michael Gauger said Bradshaw would end the program effective Monday.
Gauger didn’t say why Bradshaw made the decision. In a statement, the Sheriff’s Office said he agreed with the commission’s findings, and that the decision “saves money.”
The Sheriff’s Office spent nearly $62,000 on the work-release program in 2019, vs. $12,722 for those on house arrest. The cost varies depending on the incarcerated person’s circumstances. Under the new model, work-release participants will be absorbed into the house-arrest program.
The work-release program still will exist, but the Sheriff’s Office won’t oversee it and people in the program will no longer be held in the county’s maximum-security jails. They’ll instead be placed on house arrest and will be able to go to work during specific times, Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Teri Barbera said in the statement. Those inmates will need a judge’s order for the Sheriff’s Office to enforce a work-release agreement, according to Barbera.
The decision “places total control of the decision-making process in the hands of the Court system, and the presiding Judge,” the statement said.
Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner, who sits on both the Criminal Justice Commission and the Corrections Task Force, said he supports the decision and would like to see the county government oversee and possibly even expand the program.
“These programs allow these men and women to get out and continue a productive lifestyle,” Kerner said. “The goal of corrections is to correct the behavior but not disrupt what is otherwise a productive life.”
Kerner, who has a background in law enforcement as a police officer and special prosecutor, said he won’t let the program die. It’ll just be the county government running it, rather than the Sheriff’s Office, he said.
“It’s a matter of looking for a more efficient and cost-effective way to do it,” he said. The county will have to work out the details in the upcoming months, he said.
Bradshaw’s request for the review of the program did not cover particular cases or participants, such as Epstein. That’s why the nearly six-year time frame covered by the review started in January 2014, well after Epstein was released. During that time, 56 people participated and 53 of them successfully completed program, according to the commission’s report.
Palm Beach County is one of five counties in the state that have a work-release program, the report said. The others — Alachua, Escambia, Orange and now Palm Beach — are run by the county government. Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is now the only work-release program run by a sheriff in Florida.
Bradshaw, who has been sheriff since 2004, also has ordered a separate criminal investigation and an internal affairs probe into the handling of Epstein’s work-release arrangement. Lawyer Brad Edwards, who represents a dozen Epstein accusers, said lax supervision allowed Epstein to continue seeing women while he was in jail.
Epstein spent 13 months in the county stockade during 2008-09 as part of a once-secret plea deal widely criticized as being too lenient. The agreement ended a federal sex-abuse investigation that involved dozens of teenage girls.
About 3 1/2 months into his sentence, Epstein was allowed to spend up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, working out of a downtown West Palm Beach office. Deputy reports show he also was able to visit his Palm Beach mansion, despite restrictions on home visits. In reports, deputies referred to Epstein as the “client” and noted he was “very happy with the service” he was being provided.
A 2008 version of the work-release policy shows sex offenders were not explicitly banned from the program. The policy was updated in 2011 to specify “convicted sex offenders are ineligible,” according to records from the Sheriff’s Office.