Are Broward Judges Illegally Trying to Fill Empty Jails?

Fewer inmates, but the ones there are staying longer.
Fewer inmates, but the ones there are staying longer.
Adam Jones, PhD, via Wikimedia Commons

The Broward Sheriff's Office is responsible for housing all of the county's bad guys and gals. Surprisingly, over the past decade, the department, which is the largest fully accredited sheriff's department in the nation, has seen a dramatic dip in the number of people it's housing.

In 2005, 64,715 prisoners walked through the doors of the agency's four jails. That number rose to 66,760 in 2007. But in each successive year, BSO has seen a drop in admissions. In 2014, that number was 45,911. That's a 31 percent drop from the 2007 high.

BSO is stumped by this. "As far as the decrease in admissions: Jails nationally, especially large jails, have experienced a similar decrease over the same time period," says Keyla Concepcion, an agency spokesperson. "Don't know what that can be attributed to locally."

Indeed, a recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice showed that, nationally, jails hit a peak number around 2007, then went through a similar steady dip.

BSO's numbers jump out in another category. Although fewer people are walking through the door, they're staying much longer than the national average. The mean length of stay has been steadily rising since 2010, when it was at a low point of 27.4 days. By 2013, inmates at BSO were spending an average of 35.1 days in custody. That's a 28 percent increase.

More important, Broward inmates spend 12 more days in custody than the national average, according to the Vera report.

According to Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, both trends track with his office's experience. "There is a downward trend on arrests all across the state," he says. "We are seeing a drop in the number of cases we're getting."

On the length of stay, however, Finkelstein says it goes to bad practices in the courthouse. "I think you'll find that Judge [Jay] Hurley runs an illegal and unconstitutional magistrate proceeding where they use scheduled bonds, which are predetermined amounts that are set per the charge, as opposed to looking at the individual. It's what Broward has been doing for decades."

Finkelstein points to an analysis of the jail system by an outside expert named James Austin in 2014. The research noted the growing length of stay, a development Austin linked to the court system's lengthier processing, not to an increase in offenders. Broward's number of pretrial inmates is much higher than other jails', Austin also noted, which Finkelstein says is directly related to how bond works in Broward.

"When you are setting bonds that are predetermined per charge, whether it's $1,000 or $5,000, and you have someone who is poor standing there, they can't make those bonds. Which means they stay in jail."

Send your story tips to the author, Kyle Swenson.

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