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Setting sights on sentencing


Tina Riggle and her friends were having the kind of trouble that haunts every community activist: They couldn't seem to keep street-level criminals off their streets.

So Riggle investigated her Sarasota County legal system, where she found a number of problems. Mainly everyone -- judges, prosecutors, legislators -- was pushing the blame on everyone else.

Five years later, Riggle has made major strides to solve her problem. She formed a group of volunteers who visit courtrooms to encourage longer sentences for habitual offenders.

Riggle and her group, by their mere presence and a little help from the media, have succeeded in getting more jail time for people who have committed 25 crimes or more. As an example of how effective her Court Watch program has been, Riggle says the average sentence for prostitution has increased from a suspended sentence to 11 months in jail. Court Watch has been credited with saving the Gillespie Park section of Sarasota.

Other cities, like Tacoma, Wash., and Fort Pierce, Fla., are interested in beginning programs modeled on Court Watch. Last week Riggle visited with Florida First Lady Columba Bush and state drug czar Jim McDonough, who are interested in expanding the program statewide.

But Riggle's next big project is Orlando. She is scheduled to begin teaching Court Watch classes early next month to interested parties, namely business owners and community activists.

One of the groups interested in Court Watch is the Downtown Orlando Merchants Association, a coalition of businesses along Colonial Drive between I-4 and Orange Blossom Trail.

The merchants receive a steady stream of prostitutes and drug dealers from the Parramore neighborhood. They loiter outside of stores, chasing customers elsewhere.

At a meeting last week, the shop owners passed around a picture of Big Red, a red-haired prostitute the group hopes can become one of the first offenders targeted by Orlando Court Watch.

ventually they want the program to clean up Parramore as it did Gillespie Park. "It's totally, totally changed the neighborhood," one merchant said.

Not surprisingly, criminal-defense attorneys dislike Court Watch, comparing it to a vigilante group. Riggle says that attorneys have even insinuated that she leave their courtroom.

The flip side is that Court Watch has helped some offenders assimilate back into society. The group assists people who have kicked their drug habit find jobs and an education. "They've been very helpful to our clients," says Elliott Metcalfe, 12th Circuit public defender.

Metcalfe stopped short of providing a full endorsement of the program, however. "I assume they have an impact on the court sentencing for certain degrees of people," he says. "Are they doing what they say they are doing? I don't know. Somebody would have to do a study."

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