1. Opinion

Why pay to hold someone in jail because they don't have $250? | Editorial

A coalition of religious groups performed a wonderful act of kindness by paying $750 for the release of three men sitting in the Hillsborough County Jail on minor charges. But poor people accused of minor crimes should not have to remain in jail because they cannot afford to pay the bail money. Florida should join other states reducing the use of cash bail, particularly in cases where the cost to taxpayers to keep someone behind bars far exceeds their threat to the community.

Alexander Collins spent 13 days in Tampa's Orient Road Jail after he was arrested on a trespassing charge near the University of South Florida. Nicholas Thompson spent 32 days in jail on a petty theft charge and is accused of trying to steal a cell phone from Walmart. Neither man could afford the $250 in bail, and they were among the three people released last week after Faith in Florida paid $750 for their release. It costs taxpayers far more in public money to hold people accused of minor or nonviolent crimes in jail for weeks, and it should not take an act of kindness from strangers to correct the situation.

A handful of other states already are moving in the right direction on bail reform. California became the first state last year to abolish bail after a state court found the state's cash system was unconstitutional. Now the courts are deciding whom to release while they await trial based on a formula, and most defendants charged with nonviolent misdemeanor crimes are related within 12 hours. Arizona, New Jersey and New York also have eliminated or restricted cash bail. It's time the Florida Legislature took a similar approach.

Two recent studies of the bail system that included a review of Miami-Dade County have found that those accused of crimes who are unable to afford bail after being arrested are more likely to ultimately be convicted. It also is more likely those who cannot afford bail will be accused of new crimes or be unemployed within four years of their initial arrest. One of the studies also found that blacks accused of crimes were often treated more harshly regarding bail than whites. So there is an element of fundamental fairness at stake, as well as the financial cost to taxpayers of keeping behind bars people accused of misdemeanors or nonviolent crimes who pose little physical threat to the community.

Criminal justice reform advocates were encouraged by the Florida Legislature's efforts in the recent session. Lawmakers approved bipartisan legislation that raised the threshold for misdemeanor crimes from $300 to $750, which should reduce the number of people sent to state prison for low-level crimes. They also eliminated or reduced the use of driver's license suspensions for non-driving offenses. And they made it easier for felons to get some professional licenses so they can find work after they are released. Those are all positive steps, but there is more work to be done.

Bail reform should be added to the Legislature's criminal justice initiatives for 2020. A study of New Jersey's bail reform efforts found thousands of low-risk defendants were no longer being held in jail awaiting trial because they had not paid cash bail — and they were not more likely to commit new crimes or fail to show up in court than those released under the old bail system. Florida should pursue similar reforms that would be fairer and save taxpayers money. There is no reason taxpayers should be footing the bill to hold someone in jail for weeks because they don't have $250.