In the 19th century, Charles Dickens described the suffering of persons sentenced to debtors’ prisons, places where people were locked up simply because they owed someone money. In part due to Dickens’ writings, such prisons went out of existence.
But today the practice of keeping people locked up because they don’t have money continues in most of the U.S., including Florida. The difference is that today people aren’t being locked up because they owe money to some tradesman. It is because they can’t make bail.
More than 50,000 people currently inhabit jails in Florida’s 67 counties. It costs taxpayers well over $1 billion per year to keep them there. Many of them haven’t been convicted of a crime, are presumed innocent, and are being held only because they can’t afford bail, sometimes as little as $100. Increasingly, Florida citizens – both Republicans and Democrats – are asking if that makes sense.
But the current policies also violate basic principles of fairness. A person’s financial resources should never determine whether he or she sits behind bars. Unfortunately, what we have is a system in which there are two parallel systems of justice: one for people who can afford to get out of jail, and one for those who can’t.
A report released earlier this month by the ACLU of Florida focuses on Escambia County, to our west in state’s Panhandle. Escambia numbers about 300,000 residents and will spend $47 million this year on jails and other costs of incarceration.
Written by Sara Latshaw, ACLU of Florida deputy political director, and Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney, the report clearly describes the injustices created by the bail system, the turmoil it causes in families and the community. Even a short stay in jail can ruin a life – you can lose a job, miss a car payment, miss rent, or rack up other payments and fees that drive a person further into a cycle of criminalizing poverty. The report also documents a massive waste of taxpayer dollars.
As Latshaw and Stevenson write in a synopsis to their report:
“Unlike prisons, our jail holds a mixture of people. About a third of the inmates has been convicted and is serving relatively short sentences. Another third is deemed ineligible for release because the inmates have been accused — but not yet found guilty — of a violation of probation, terms of pretrial release, or for some other reason. The last third awaits trial and thus are presumed innocent.”
People in that last third often spend weeks in jail awaiting the adjudication of their cases. In Escambia County, the cost of keeping a person in jail is about $70 per day. Other counties in Florida spend comparable amounts. That means it costs about $2,000 per month to keep a person in jail.
Many times, these are people accused of minor crimes — trespass, shoplifting, public intoxication, possession of small of marijuana, etc. If they had as little as $100 to pay a bail bondsman, they would be free.
Does it make sense to spend $2,000 per month to lock up someone who isn’t considered dangerous only because they don’t have $100?
The economics of it don’t make sense, but the bail policies also violate the principles of our justice system. As Stevenson states in a YouTube video that was released along with the report:
“If the presumption of innocence is to mean anything, it should mean a person should not be punished before they have been convicted. That is essentially what is happening when you impose bail that you know the defendant can’t possibly afford.”
That video, “Bail Reform is a Bipartisan Issue in Florida,” also features Escambia County Commissioners Jeff Bergosh, a conservative Republican, and Lumon May, a liberal Democrat, who are in accord that changes are needed now.
Among the possible solutions included in the ACLU report are.:
- Better screening of accused person to determine who is truly a risk to society and who is not.
- Release more people on their own recognizance or on signature bonds that do not require the outlay of cash.
- Using automatic text alerts to notify people when they have a court date approaching, a process that costs next to nothing
- Greater use of ankle monitors to keep track of persons awaiting court dates. Although an imperfect solution, such monitors are preferable to detention, and cost the taxpayer about one tenth what it costs to keep a person in jail.
- Streamlining the judicial process, especially procedures leading to bail modifications and plea agreements.
The issue is being confronted all across the country. Some states are way ahead of Florida in tackling the issue.
At the moment, in Florida our jails are too often acting as debtors’ prisons. Charles Dickens might be writing about them if he were still alive. It’s time to make changes.
A version of this article first appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat and the Pensacola News Journal.