FORT MYERS, Fla. - You may have heard the term career criminal. People who seem to live their life in and out of jail. So if they're career criminals, why do they keep getting set free? Turns out, there is a law in place to try and stop that from happening. But WINK News uncovered, it's not stopping all career criminals.
For the last 20 years, a southwest Florida task force made up of people from the Lee County Sheriff's Office, Cape Coral Police Department, Fort Myers Police Department and the State Attorney's Office, have had the job of keeping career criminals from furthering their career.
Together, they gather evidence to get repeat offenders longer sentences and bigger bonds. It's all designed to keep dangerous people off the streets but the way the law is written, it doesn't always work.
"My husband was murdered on my daughter's second birthday in front of me and the guy also assaulted me," said Heather Codie-Jackson, victim.
In 2011, Codie-Jackson had a gun pointed at her face while she watched her husband die.
"Its obvious to me that you're unable to live in society without violating the law," said Judge Frank Porter.
"He's gone for life and its over finally for me," said Codie-Jackson.
The man responsible for the murder, Tremaine Bailem, is in prison for life. Codie-Jackson believes Bailem should have never been out on the street and says the court system failed her and her family.
"For him to be out and be able to do this they did," said Codie-Jackson.
But Bailem was out with 22 other arrests on his record. Serious ones. Battery and assault on an officer and grand theft auto. Still, that wasn't enough to make him a career criminal, in the eyes of the law.
"Remember its not arrests. Someone may be arrested six times in the past but if they're convicted is what is looked at and qualifies them to be a career criminal," said Anthony Kunasek, Assistant State Attorney.
Kunasek says the law is clear. Bailem's previous felony convictions were too far apart for him to be considered a career criminal. That is, until he was arrested for murder.
"If they were to change the criteria we would like that," said Mary Ellen Hughes, Fort Myers Police Department.
Hughes with the Fort Myers Police Department was in the room when Tremaine Bailem was finally sentenced to life behind bars. Hughes is part of the Career Criminal Task Force and says its up to the State Legislature to make the changes.
"We want people to see that they are taken seriously, these crimes and we're not going to tolerate it," said Hughes.
Had Bailem not had the previous convictions on his record, he could have received a lesser sentence for second-degree murder. But the task force stopped that from happening by making sure the judge knew about Bailem's criminal background.
"Its a great feeling. You can actually see your work progress from the arrest all the way to the prosecution to the sentencing," said Hughes.
She admits, it's not perfect.
"You can have a person that has 25 burglaries, all on different offense dates, but then the judge sanctions them on the same date, thats only considered one charge," said Hughes.
There are strict guidelines the task force has to follow to weed out the worst of the worst. In 2012, the task force reviewed 28,852 felony arrest reports in Lee County. Of those, only 503 qualified as possible career criminals. Of those, only 277 were formally charged and deemed habitual offenders. That means, they got the title career criminal based on charges. A small percentage according to the State Attorney's Office.
"In fact, the statistics show that career criminals are small fraction of the criminals actually that we have overall," said Kunasek.
The task force reviews arrests and if someone is deemed a career criminal, the group will go to first appearance. They'll tell the judge the person's history and try to keep them locked up.
"From an additional $5,000 to hold no bond," said Hughes.
Ultimately, it's up to a judge and it can be a struggle. We went to court as the task force got to work on Forest Franks' case. A convicted felon, he was charged with three more felonies in December, just two years after his last felony arrest. That makes him a career criminal. The task force was looking for a $200,000 bond but the judge only gave Franks a $53,000 bond.
"It just depends on what the conviction is, what the instant offense is as well," said Kunasek.
But the task force is committed to making sure people like Heather Codie-Jackson don't end up with guns in their faces pointed by someone who should have been locked up.
"I forgive him because I know that in my religion that if you don't forgive people, God ain't going to forgive you," said Codie-Jackson.
In addition to working to get the highest bond or most severe sentence possible for habitual offenders, the task force works to notify law enforcement agencies when criminals are being released from prison.
For a link to the Florida Statue, click here