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Broad formula used to set bonds

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By Margaret Harding
Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

A district judge ordered a man accused of shooting someone 11 times to remain in jail under a $20,000 bond, the amount another man paid to get out of jail on charges he stole three candy bars.

The cases are an example of bonds that Pittsburgh police consider inconsistent and frustrating.

“They arrest somebody for a shooting or a stabbing, and then they're out. And then another person commits a crime that's not as serious, and they're still in jail,” said Zone 6 Cmdr. Scott Schubert, whose detectives charged Lenell Ptomey, 30, with attempted homicide in the shooting of Thomas Romesburg on Sept. 17 and Mark Winkowski, 40, with the candy bar theft in April 2012.

“It's disheartening when you see somebody involved in violent crime, and you find out they're out on a $20,000 bond. It just kind of blows your mind,” Schubert said.

Ptomey, slapped with a retainer for a probation violation, remains in the Allegheny County Jail awaiting formal arraignment in Common Pleas Court. Winkowski, convicted of 15 thefts, pleaded guilty to retail theft this time and was sentenced to two years' probation.

Janice Dean is director of pretrial services for Allegheny County and oversees the 12 bail investigators who make recommendations on bonds to district judges tasked with arraignments in Pittsburgh Municipal Courts.

The investigators do not recommend monetary amounts in their risk assessment reports.

“What amount of money would make it safe to release someone?” Dean said. “If someone is accused of rape and can pay $50,000, does that make it safer? There's no national research that shows an amount of money makes it safe.”

The investigators consider a defendant's criminal history, how long he or she has lived at the current home, employment and other factors to determine the likelihood that the person will reoffend, or show up in court, Dean said. They did about 22,000 such investigations in 2012.

“We don't only look at the charge,” Dean said. “I think a lot of times people look at the charge and nothing else, but we look at other things.”

Based on their findings, the investigators recommend whether to release the defendant, set a nonmonetary bond or set no bond because the person is too high-risk, Dean said.

“Your risk assessment is saying, ‘Eighty percent of people who match this criteria are going to act this way,' ” Dean said. “You're playing the odds a little, but it's better than a gut instinct.”

District Judge Mary Murray, president of the Special Court Judges Association of Allegheny County, said magistrates do not have to follow the recommendations of bail investigators.

“You can go with whatever you feel like,” Murray said. “It's very subjective. I will see ones where they have 50 to 60 retail thefts, and it's the holiday season, so I might put a high bond on them, where somebody else puts no bond.”

Schubert raised the possibility of guidelines for judges on monetary bonds, such as a range of amounts, but Murray said there's no movement to change the procedure.

“You worry that — let's say I put somebody out, and they go and kill somebody, and they say, ‘You didn't put a bond on him,' ” Murray said. “There's always that in the back of your head.”

Margaret Harding is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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