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November 15, 2021

TAMPA, FL – The ACLU of Florida filed a class action petition today on behalf of 11 people who have been detained pretrial in the Sarasota and Manatee county jails because they cannot afford to pay their bail amounts. The class action seeks to challenge the respective counties’ routine practice of imposing monetary bail amounts on people who cannot afford to pay them resulting in their detention prior to having their day in court. The petition names as respondents the two counties’ sheriffs, Sheriff Kurt Hoffman and Sheriff Rick Wells, and the State of Florida, who are participants in this systemic practice. 

The petition claims the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires the State to prove this detention is clearly necessary, yet the State almost never satisfies this mandate.  Each of the 11 people named in the petition testified they could not afford their bail, but the State failed to clearly show no alternative conditions of release were likewise workable. 

“Unaffordable cash bail without due process promotes wealth-based incarceration and is an unconstitutional practice, “said Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida. “People caught in this system often lose their jobs, homes, ability to take care of their families and prepare for trial, simply because they cannot afford their pretrial freedom. For too long we have ignored that detention is the practical result of an unaffordable bail and imposed de facto detention without really studying whether other options exist and whether locking a person up is really the only reasonable solution.”

The practice of setting unaffordable bail is a widespread practice in the state of Florida despite the existence of alternative tools to ensure people return to court. It also adds additional financial burdens to Florida's criminal justice system. The costs of housing a person in jail in Manatee and Sarasota Counties costs about $100  a day. Each county jail holds approximately 300 people in jail simply because they cannot afford their bail amounts. 

“No one should be in jail simply because they cannot afford their bail. Yet, millions of Florida taxpayer dollars are being spent on unfairly detaining people pretrial without due process simply because they don't have enough money to buy their freedom,” said Jacqueline Azis, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida. “This is an unjust, un-American system. The continuing operation of this system of wealth-based incarceration only intensifies the racial disparities in our criminal justice system.”

George Whitfield is one of the petitioners in this class-action petition.  He was arrested for drug possession and paraphernalia. The Sarasota court set the bail amount of  $2,000 even after it was made aware that Mr. Whitfield cannot afford to pay it, is not a danger to his community nor a flight risk, and was employed at the time. Because he cannot afford his freedom, Mr. Whitfield has been held pretrial in the Sarasota jail since August 4  and has since lost his job. 

“Mr. Whitfield is only one of thousands of people who face an impossible situation on a daily basis in Florida,” said Jerry Edwards, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida. “People who are unable to pay these unaffordable bail amounts face the loss of their jobs, separation from their families, and are forced to sit in jail for days, months, or possibly years as their case moves through the system regardless of their guilt or innocence. Floridians and their families deserve better. This is not justice.”  

The petition was filed in Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal.  

A copy to the petition is here: