Repeat offenders’ jail time is costly to county

OKEECHOBEE — Sheriff Noel Stephen is quick to point out that at a rate of $58 per day one local family, with an extensive incarceration rate, is creating a heavy burden for Okeechobee County taxpayers.

Brothers Walter ‘Freak’ Jackson and Walter ‘Nunee’ Jackson Jr., along with their sister Merita Jackson, have been arrested a total of 52 times. Because of their arrest histories, all three are classified by the state as career felony offenders.

As a result of those arrests, they have logged a lot of time behind the iron bars of the Okeechobee County Jail. All, at the taxpayer’s expense.

“Citizens need to quit paying for their (the Jacksons’) bad decisions — they’re not going to change,” said Sheriff Stephen in a Sept. 20 interview.

“What they pay in ad valorem taxes is definitely not paying for the services I’ve got to give them.

“What the answer is, I don’t know,” he added.

A check with the Okeechobee County Property Appraiser learned the Jackson’s tax bill on the N.E. 16th Avenue property they share has been paid in full.

Let’s take a look at their arrest histories.

• Freak, 60, N.E. 16th Ave., has been arrested eight times since 1982. Seven of those arrests were local. He has been charged with seven felonies and has two felony convictions. He has also been arrested four times on misdemeanor charges, and twice convicted on misdemeanor charges.

He has various arrests that include drug charges, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, burglary and violation of probation.

His first felony conviction came in 1992 when he was found guilty for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. He was given probation.

In 2002 he was charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, possession of cocaine with intent to sell and possession of drug paraphernalia. Those charges were later dropped.

His most recent arrest was on Sept. 18, 2017, when he was reportedly caught with 37 pills that were later identified as dilaudid. He was then charged with possession of a controlled substance. He was also charged with trespassing.

Freak was released on bond.

That arrest came on the heels of his Aug. 29 arrest during a roundup throughout the county in which more than 32 people were arrested for the illegal street-level sales of drugs. In that case, Freak was charged with possession of a controlled substance (hydromorphone) within 1,000 feet of a church and sale of a controlled substance (hydromorphone) within 1,000 feet of a church. Hydromorphone is also known by its trade name of dilaudid.

Freak was then released from jail after posting $60,000 bond.

• Nunee, 58, of the same address, was has been arrested 30 times since 1977. Twenty-four of those arrests are local. He has been charged with 23 felonies and has five felony convictions. He has also been charged with 18 misdemeanors and has 17 misdemeanor convictions. He has twice been sentenced to prison where he has served a total of 16 years.

His first arrest came in April of 1977 after he had just turned 18.

Like his brother, Nunee was arrested during that August roundup on one count of sale of a controlled substance (hydromorphone) and possession of a controlled substance (hydromorphone) with intent to sell. His bond was set at $150,000.

He remains in the county jail.

• Merita, 54, of the same address, also has a long arrest record which started in 1984. Since then she has been arrested 14 times — 13 of those on local charges — and has spent five years in prison.

Her local record is: 20 felony charges; eight felony convictions; five misdemeanor charges; and, six misdemeanor convictions.

Merita’s first felony arrest — possession of marijuana over 20 grams with intent to sell — came in January of 1984. In February of 2000 she was charged with aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer with a motor vehicle, but that charge was dropped. She was then convicted in 2005 for the sale of cocaine.

In March of 2010 she was convicted on one count of sale of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a church and two counts of sale of cocaine. One month later she was convicted on four counts of sale of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a church.

According to Department of Corrections (DOC) records, on Jan. 28, 2011, Merita was sentenced to 90 months in prison. She was released in 2016.

Earlier this year she was found guilty on a misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana under 20 grams. Then, in August, she was arrested during that roundup on six counts of possession of a hallucinogen within 1,000 feet of a church. She was released from the county jail on $200,000 bond.

So, what does all this mean to Okeechobee County taxpayers?

Since 2013, when the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office began using their current computer system, the trio has spent a total of 297 days in jail. At a cost of $58 per day, per inmate, that comes to a total of $17,226.

Those totals do not include the 537 days Merita spent in the county jail prior to 2013. Those dollar amounts were not available since they were recorded on a now-defunct system.

All together, the triumvirate has spent a total of 834 days in the county jail.

But, there are current prisoners who are awaiting trial and have been in jail longer than that, or nearly as long.

For example, Michael Exantus has been in the county jail for a total of 1,484 days. Which, at a rate of $58 a day, means it has cost taxpayers a whopping $86,072 to house him in the county jail.

Exantus, 31, is being held on a charge of first-degree murder. He was indicted by a local grand jury in September of 2013 for the death of Antoine McQueen Hill.

Another example is Conrad Thitchener, 49. He is also awaiting trial for the alleged Dec. 23, 2014, rape of a West Palm Beach woman and has been in jail for 1,083 days. At $58 a day, holding Thitchener for trial has cost taxpayers $62,814.

Although Lisa Kramer will likely face a jury of her peers next month, she has been held in the county jail for a total of 728 days. The cost for holding her since her arrest in September of 2015 comes to $42,224.

Kramer, 47, is being held on a total of five charges. Those charges include vehicular homicide, driving under the influence causing death to a human or child, failure to stop/remain at a crash involving death and driving under the influence with priors.

According to jail records as of Wednesday, Sept. 20, 20 current inmates have been in jail for a total of 365 days or longer. That total includes Exantus, Thitchener and Kramer. That means each one of those 20 prisoners is costing local taxpayers $10,220 each, per year.

“That’s why our budget is what it is. We need to try and get cases heard in a more timely fashion,” offered Sheriff Stephen.

The sheriff has given the Okeechobee County Board of County Commissioners his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which includes a total jail spending plan of $5,667,847.

One thing that’s helped his budget is the ankle monitoring program. This program allows for some folks to be fitted with an electronic GPS monitor on their ankle which allows them to continue to work and be with their families.

This program is historically used for those arrested on misdemeanor and/or non-violent crimes.

Figures released by Okeechobee County indicate in 2016 there were 72 supervised individuals, 19 new defendants were put in the program and seven were carry-overs from 2015 with a total of 98 supervised defendants.

There were approximately 7,660 ‘bed days’ were saved.

At the sheriff’s rate of $58 per day, the projected savings totaled $442,280.

“It (the program) is paying for itself,” offered Sheriff Stephen.

He went on to point out the county jail has a total of 232 beds. However, as of Wednesday, Sept. 20, there were 275 inmates being housed there.

“Our daily average for female prisoners is 41, but we only have 24 beds for females,” he added. “I have to keep the two genders out of sight and out of sound of one another. Trying to do that in a 32-year-old facility is pushing the envelope.”

When asked to voice a solution to the problem of housing inmates for such long periods of time, Sheriff Steven shook his head and sighed.

“I don’t think it’s any one person’s fault — it’s just our system. The wheels of justice turn, but they turn slowly,” he said. “They (the inmates) have to be granted due process.”

He then pointed to a relatively new group of officials that comprise the Public Safety Coordinating Council, of which he is a member.

That group, he said, is currently discussing this very topic as well as trying to come up with ways to lower the recidivism rate. He said they are trying to find better and simpler ways to handle these issues “… rather than putting them right back in jail.”

Another suggestion, he continued, is enhancing penalties for those convicted of felonies.

“Minimum-mandatory sentences seem to get their attention,” he said.

Simply put, such a sentence would require the defendant to spend a mandatory minimum amount of time in prison before being released.

He went on to say it also helps to have state attorneys, like assistant state attorney Ashley Albright, who have been in the local office for a number of years and are trying to help him.

“The luxury of having the Ashley Albrights in that office is that they’re seeing the same things I’ve seen,” offered Sheriff Stephen.

Just what is Mr. Albright seeing and what are his ideas on alleviating the jail situation? That will be addressed in next week’s installment.

Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News

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