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Tuesday, November 16, 2021

ACLU sues state of Florida to challenge bail system

Posted By on Tue, Nov 16, 2021 at 3:19 PM

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The ACLU of Florida filed a class action petition this week on behalf of 11 people who are detained before trial in Sarasota and Manatee County jails because they cannot afford to pay their bail.

The petition was filed in Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal, and seeks to challenge the counties’ practice of imposing bail on people, which keeps them locked up before trial.

This can destroy the lives of those who have not yet had their day in court. ACLU of Florida, the plaintiffs, filed the petition with the court to ask that the case be certified as a class action lawsuit against the respondents (the word used for defendant in a legal petition).

The respondents named in the petition are Kurt Hoffman, Sarasota County Sheriff and Sheriff Rick Wells, Manatee County Sheriff, along with the State of Florida.

The petition claims the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment requires the State to prove these bail detentions are clearly necessary. The ACLU says 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 workable.

“Unaffordable cash bail without due process promotes wealth-based incarceration and is an unconstitutional practice,” Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida said in a press release. “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.”

Benjamin went on to say that for too long the state has ignored the fact that detention is the result of an unaffordable bail. He said that detention is imposed upon those who can’t afford bail, 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 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 ACLU of Florida says. The costs of housing a person in jail in Manatee and Sarasota Counties costs about $100 a day. The group says that each Florida county jail holds approximately 300 people behind bars 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.”

This story originally appeared at Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.

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