Florida Voters Agree on One Thing: Pre-Trial Detention Takes Advantage of the Poor

Silver Market, Coast to Coast Bail Bonds.
Silver Market, Coast to Coast Bail Bonds. Philip Menke/Flickr
click to enlarge Silver Market, Coast to Coast Bail Bonds. - PHILIP MENKE/FLICKR
Silver Market, Coast to Coast Bail Bonds.
Philip Menke/Flickr
Broward County resident Herman Lindsey has gone to jail six times because of his inability to pay the bonds set for his release. On one occasion in the '90s, his bail was set to $50. At the time, Lindsey had no feasible means to resolve it. He wound up in jail for two weeks for an unpaid traffic citation.

"I didn't have a bank account, I didn't have cash, I couldn't get anyone to go to get me the money. It was just a traffic ticket." Lindsey also recalls having spent up to three months in pre-trial detention following that incident because he couldn't afford similar bond amounts.

"The conditions in jail are disgusting. I missed my kids...I wasn't there for them." - Broward County resident Nikia Wilson

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His wife Nikia Wilson was imprisoned last December because of the same root issue. "I didn't have income, I wasn't really working, I have kids... $5,000 to $8,000 dollars was my bond." Unbeknownst to her, she had been pegged as a culprit in a grand theft auto because of crimes that Wilson alleges were carried out by her friend. "I was in jail for about a week before somebody bonded me out," she says. "The conditions in jail are disgusting. I missed my kids... I wasn't there for them."

Thousands of Floridians like Lindsey and Wilson are detained every year because they can't afford bail. As of May, approximately 1,036 people were held in the Broward County Main Jail daily. 99.1% of them were pre-trial inmates. Conviction or not, extensive research conducted by the ACLU suggests that brief stints in jail aggravate everyday problems already plaguing low-income citizens, including potential loss of employment and the inability to pay detention-associated fees.

In March of this year, Florida became the first state to require counties to collect comprehensive criminal justice data and make it accessible in a public database. But voters think that more needs to be done: in partnership with the James Madison Institute, the Pretrial Justice Institute released polling results last month revealing a majority of Florida voters want pre-trial detention reform. Heading into the midterms, where gubernatorial candidates Andrew Gillum and Ron DeSantis advocate divergent platforms concerning criminal justice, the results are telling.

The poll found that a majority of Florida registered voters believe the criminal justice system does not treat all people fairly. Four out five said the wealthy enjoy significantly better outcomes than do poor and working-class people, while 59 percent said that white people are treated better by the criminal justice system than are people of color.

Four out five said the wealthy enjoy significantly better outcomes than do poor and working-class people, while 59 percent said that white people are treated better by the criminal justice system than are people of color.

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No amendment on this year's ballot directly addresses pre-trial reform, but Andrew Gillum is the sole gubernatorial candidate who has explicitly advocated for it. The Democratic contender considers pre-trial detention a major criminal justice priority. “Those who have not been found guilty who are sitting in jail," he said in an interview, "that’s where I will put my focus." 

Sean Shaw is the Democratic candidate up for Attorney General who, like Gillum, is campaigning for bail reform. "Florida clearly needs to reform our bail system," Shaw told New Times in an email. "It should not look like a debtors' prison, and at the moment, it does. Where you are on the economic ladder should not determine your ability to get a fair trial."

Rachel Sottile Logvin, Senior Vice President of the Pretrial Justice Institute and a Florida native herself, is outspoken about where the state's criminal justice system contradicts the U.S. Constitution. "Detention should be the carefully limited exception because people are unconvicted and innocent until proven guilty. Yet our justice system does not align with that legal premise in its practices. It is wealth-based."

The Pretrial Justice Institute reached 717 registered Florida voters by phone in little over a two-week period. The poll found that 82 percent of registered Florida voters favor providing court reminders or supervision for people awaiting trial in the community, 78 percent support reducing the number of arrests for low-level, nonviolent offenses by issuing citations, and 55 percent of voters think prosecutors should have to make the case for pre-trial detention. And there's more to the issue than financial disparity. 91% of registered Latinx voters polled are dissatisfied with the criminal justice system.

"It has been reported that in some counties, like Duval and Clay, judges don’t even inquire about a defendant’s ability to pay and merely impose bail based on a preset schedule," says Juan Cartagena, President & General Counsel of LatinoJustice. He says the practice runs contrary to the presumption of innocence that our laws require. “And it is exactly why nine out of ten Latinos... recently demanded changes to a criminal justice system that consistently provides better outcomes for the rich over the poor.”

Now it's on the shoulders of Floridians to decide what the next steps should be in resolving these disparities, Logvin advises, reminding Florida voters that this election is an opportunity for change. She adds that calls to reform the pre-trial process have brought together "many political affiliations and voices" on an issue that remains bipartisan.

Adds Scott McCoy, Senior Policy Counsel at the Southern Poverty Law Center, "There are differences among the candidates for just about any office in terms of the right approach to criminal justice reform. What I encourage people to do is to prioritize criminal justice reform as an issue that you care about in your candidates. Then learn what their positions are on their issues, and then vote for the candidates that are in favor of fixing the broken system that we have."

Wilson thinks it's common that sky-high bail figures like the one she was faced with are leaving those charged with no other option but to remain locked up before their day in court. "I think that they should take into consideration people's individual lifestyles, their children, their employment. A lot of people go to jail and then lose everything," concludes Wilson, who understands the necessity for the pre-trial system but wants people to remember that "we're all human...and we deserve some sort of compassion."
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Ayurella Horn-Muller is a South Florida native, Florida State University alumna, and freelance journalist. She covers arts, culture, and music for Miami New Times and news for New Times Broward-Palm Beach. You can also catch her work in Forbes, Elite Daily, Film Threat, Elephant Journal, and Face the Current.