Liberal Democrat State Attorney Aramis Ayala of the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court has given conservatives something to celebrate.
In a recently outlined policy concerning the use of bail, she’s set a course that will save taxpayer money and better protect the public – outcomes that conservatives regularly champion. Ayala’s decision to revise her district’s bail practices could have far-reaching benefits and could act as a model for state-level reforms. Legislators from both parties would do well to take note.
In most locales, criminal defendants can post bail as a precondition for being released from jail before trial. The bail amount is set by a judge and is supposed to reflect both the individual’s flight risk and the severity of the alleged crime. It also exists as leverage to ensure that the accused will return for their court date. While this system is not without some value, it has led to unjust outcomes. Thus, bail policies ought to be reevaluated.
In Florida and across much of the country, alleged offenders are being held in jail for months at a time – regardless of their guilt or innocence – on misdemeanor charges, simply because they cannot afford to post bail. This policy effectively criminalizes poverty and has had a devastating effect on some of the most vulnerable portions of our population. Due to extended stays in jail, the accused risk losing their homes and jobs, which in turn adversely affects recidivism rates – after all, those without homes or jobs often turn to crime for survival. Meanwhile, taxpayers are on the hook for funding their unnecessarily lengthy stays in county jails.
Ayala’s new policy takes these issues head-on. Starting June 1, prosecutors in her district have not recommended monetary bonds for certain individuals. Rather, these alleged offenders will be released on their own recognizance – in layman’s terms, this means they will be released after they swear to return for their court appearance. To qualify for this privilege, defendants must not pose a flight risk and must only be accused of certain nonviolent, petty misdemeanors. Ayala identified nine such offenses, including driving without a license, panhandling and loitering.
The shift away from the monetary bail system for minor crimes could have a dramatic fiscal impact. On any given day in Orange County alone, the local jail holds around 2,360 individuals at a cost of more than $68 per inmate per day. Yet 76 percent of that population hasn’t even been convicted. These individuals were simply awaiting trial – many for minor infractions. This meant that, on average, the Orange County jail has spent over $44 million annually to house and feed individuals who haven’t been convicted of any crime. Worse still, many of these people have languished in jail indefinitely because they were too poor to pay their cash bail.
There is a public safety rationale for releasing those who pose no risk to society. The longer people are housed in county lockup, the more likely they are to reoffend. Individuals who are jailed for upwards of 72 hours are 17 percent more likely to break the law again within two years than those who spend less than a day in lockup. The odds of reoffending only grow from there: People are 35 percent likelier to reoffend after spending up to seven days in jail, and those who are confined for up to two weeks have a 51 percent higher chance of committing another infraction within the same timeframe.
Florida has been one of the nation’s champions of criminal-justice reform-policies. It is time for the state to take the next step and reform the cash-bail system. Considering that around 56,000 people are housed in Florida’s county jails at any given time, and that the majority of them haven’t been convicted, cash-bail reforms could have an immediate and enormous cost-saving impact.
Ayala isn’t the only other Florida state attorney pursuing beneficial change. Melissa Nelson from the Fourth Judicial Circuit is also considering reforms to her district’s cash-bail system. But a broader approach is needed to aid all Floridians. If state legislators, or more prosecutors, adopt an innovative approach in the same vein as Ayala’s, research suggests that millions of dollars will be saved and recidivism rates will decline. These are certainly ends that conservatives can support.
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