A day in the life at Probation Court: freedom revoked, and some mercy

ORLANDO – They form a continuous parade as they march into the courtroom, wearing orange or dark blue jail jumpsuits, their legs shackled and hands cuffed.  They represent people who committed crimes and were judged guilty, then given a second chance to prove they could still play by the rules.

But if they show up at Courtroom 9D at the Orange County Courthouse in downtown Orlando, it’s because the state wants to prove they didn’t follow those rules, and probably can’t.  Many of the inmates in the courtroom look dazed and depressed.  They know what’s likely to happen.

Probation offers those who have committed crimes the ability to live on the outside world, but if they violate the rules of probation, it means jail time awaits them.

This is Probation Court, the room where Circuit Court Judge Alice Blackwell presides over inmates who were given that opportunity to live on the outside, to hold jobs and to do whatever they wanted to – as long as the obeyed the strict rules of being on probation, which includes meeting once a month with an assigned probation officer.  Their appearance before Judge Blackwell means they were rearrested for violating their probation, and have been sitting in the Orange County Corrections jail, sometimes for days, sometimes longer, waiting to learn their fate.

It’s up to Judge Blackwell to decide if these inmates who were given that second chance blew it and should have the terms of their probation revoked – or if there are extenuating circumstances that suggest they really can handle being on the outisde, among those who never committed a crime to begin with.

In most instances, the judge doesn’t even make that decision – the inmate has agreed to plead guilty, or no contest, to the violation, and if it’s up the judge to decide if she wants to accept the punishment worked out by the inmate’s lawyer and the state prosecutor, Shannon Corack.

Jeremiah Autry is just 20, but with his boyish face, looks even younger.  He quietly answered the judge’s questions after agreeing, through his attorney, to plead guilty. He’d been arrested in August 2009 on drug charges, and placed on probation in January 2010. But he failed to make the court ordered payments, had his driver’s license suspended last June, and the Lakeland resident got picked by Polk County Sheriff’s deputies earlier this month and was transported back to Orange County jail. He entered a plea on violating the terms of his probation, and agreed to a 90 day jail sentence.

In sentencing him, Judge Blackwell imposed a $100 court cost, then asked when he could pay it after his sentence has been served.

“I’ll pay when I get out of jail,” Autry said.

The judge also noted that Polk County had charged Orange County $5.50 to transport him, and added, “I also have to impose $5.50 for the cost of your transport from Polk County, so the total will be $105.50.”

Hector Rosa was brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair, his hands and feet still cuffed.  Just 18, his original charges included grand theft of a motor vehicle, possession of marijuana and cocaine, attempting to elude a police officer, aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer, and resisting an officer without violence. Now he had probation violation to add to the list.

Judge Blackwell decided to send him back to jail, but also made note of the fact that when he completed the sentence, he would be a convicted felon. At his age, she wondered aloud if his attorney had fully explained to him the implcations of that.

“Is that acceptable to you as a way to resolve your case?” she asked. “Your face says yes, your mouth says no.”

As a felon, she said, “You won’t be able to vote. You won’t be able to own any weapons or any kind of ammunition. You will not be able to enter the Armed Services. You won’t qualify for certain types of jobs where you need a bond because you won’t be bondable.  Did your lawyer explain all these consequences to you?”

Rosa said he understood, and the judge sentenced him to 10 months in the Orange County jail, where he’s been since Dec. 31.

Several inmates, picked up recently on probation violation charges, were told they’d have to wait a little longer in jail, until February, when the judge would meet with their attorney for a status hearing.

“That will give your attorney some time to talk with you and make some decisions about what to do about your case,” Judge Blackwell told one defendant as she set the status hearing for Feb. 2. In the meantime, the inmate remains in jail.

For others who agreed to plead guilty, the judge noted that she was terminating their probation, which had allowed them to remain outside of jail, to hold a job, support their family, go to movies and do whatever they want, so long as they attend a monthly meeting with their probation officer. Now, having violating the rules, “There won’t be any further probation to follow,” Blackwell advised them. Other times, she would sternly warn, “This is a no excuses situation – are we clear?”

She also made a point of advising inmates to start paying their court costs as soon as they get out of jail.  They’re routinely given 30 days to reintegrate into society and “get your life reestablished in the community,” Blackwell said.  Then they would need to start making monthly payments, even small ones.

“Your driver’s license can be suspended or revoked if you don’t follow the rules of Collection Court,” Blackwell said.

Not everyone had their probation revoked. Terri Lynn Pittman, 36, of Apopka, violated probation by missing two of the monthly meetings with her probation officer.  Pittman told the judge she had three children to support, and a job with Habitat for Humanity.  She had been placed on 18 months of probation in July 2010.

When the judge asked Pittman why she’d missed the meetings, Pittman tearfully said “Because of work.  They were going to cut our hours because things were slow.”

Fearing that she might lose the job, she stayed at work and called her probation officer to reschedule.

“She said, ‘Be here first thing in the morning at 8 o’clock,’ and I was,” Pittman said.

Pittman told the judge she’d been with Habitat for a year, that it was a good, stable job, and she would lose it – and the ability to support her children – if she went back to jail.

“I really love it and I’m really good at it,” Pittman said.

The state wasn’t convinced. Corack noted that her probation officer had been forced to go searching for Pittman.

“A probation officer went above and beyond trying to locate her,” Corack said.  “Despite numerous attempts, she did not show up in October and November. The state believes six months in Orange County jail.”

The judge agreed that inmates on probation can’t expect their probation officer to chase them.

“It’s your responsibility to go to probation,” Blackwell said.  “They’re not supposed to go looking for you.”

The judge did agree to reinstate Pittman’s probation, but only after warning her that any more missed meetings, and there would be no more mercy to hand down.

“I’m not going to put you back on if you just avoid it again,” Judge Blackwell said.  “You can’t wait for her to issue an invitation.  You have to go.  I’m willing to give you another shot at it, but it’s a no excuse situation.”

That prompted Pittman to promise, “You’re not going to see me again.”

After imposing each sentence, the judge concluded by offering the same parting comment to every inmate, including those headed from freedom to incarceration:

“Good luck to you, sir.”

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