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ACLU of FL urges reforms to reduce Escambia County’s high incarceration rate

ACLU of FL urges reforms to reduce Escambia County’s high incarceration rate

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida is highlighting the need for bail reform in Escambia County, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the Sunshine State. In a recently released report, the ACLU asserts that Escambia County’s “jail is crowded, expensive, and houses many non-violent, pretrial defendants who could safely reside in the community with their family and continue to work while awaiting court.”

According to the report, as of July 31, 2017, there were 1,795 people locked up in the Escambia County jails awaiting trial. Of that total, 598 were eligible for release while awaiting trial but unable to afford the bail that would get them released. There are also more than 1,000 inmates currently housed in the county’s main jail, which was designed to incarcerate a maximum of 779 people.

Corrections Director Tamyra Jarvis said in July that 155 inmates were sleeping on the floor because of prison overcrowding. The county is also spending about $500,000 a year to keep some people jailed in a nearby county and is planning to build a new $130 million jail.

Escambia County Jail

In a report entitled “Smart Jail for Escambia: Factsheet and Recommended Solutions,” the ACLU recommends multiple ways for the county reduce its jail population. Bail reform, improving pretrial supervision, and streamlining the process from arrest to a resolution in a case are included among the 14 recommendations.

A key recommendation seeks to “tailor any monetary bail to its purpose.” The report explains that “[b]ail prevents many indigent defendants from leaving jail while their cases are pending — even though often these defendants do not pose a threat to the community. Too many people are jailed unnecessarily, with their economic status often defining pretrial outcomes.”

“Many of the people the county is detaining are in jail simply because they cannot afford cash bail, meaning we have one system of justice for those who can afford to pay to get out jail, and one for those who can’t,” said ACLU staff attorney Benjamin Stevenson. “These are people who are presumed innocent and have not actually been convicted of a crime.”

Studies have shown that keeping people locked up because they can’t afford bail doesn’t keep the public any safer, Stevenson said.

Escambia County Commissioners Jeff Bergosh, a Republican, and Lumon May, a Democrat, have come out in favor of the proposal, with both participating in an ACLU video expressing support for bail reform.

Bergosh said in the video that jail cells that are supposed to house one person now often house three. May said the county is now spending $47 million a year to lock people up.

“I look at the overcrowding as a systemic public health problem,” May said, explaining that it’s unfair to lock someone up because they can’t afford bail. May also emphasized that it’s also unfair to taxpayers to keep people locked up when they don’t pose a threat to the public.

Cutting the jail population could also help Escambia County Sheriff’s Office’s funding crisis. Sheriff David Morgan has said he will have to drastically cut services if Escambia County Commissioners don’t raise property taxes to better fund his office. Lowering the jail population could help alleviate the strain his office is currently facing.

Morgan and State Attorney William Eddins have not commented on the ACLU proposal. The ACLU is expected to give a presentation on its recommendations to the Escambia County Commission later this month.

Escambia County is the westernmost county on Florida’s Panhandle, with Alabama bordering it on both the west and the north. Its incarceration rate is 80 percent higher than the state average.

Trapped — Brave New Films presents The Bail Trap game

Trapped — Brave New Films presents The Bail Trap game

Being trapped results in physical experiences beyond those caused by the immediate environs in which you are stuck. You feel it in your muscles, in your chest, in your throat and in your stomach. It is, to say the least, uncomfortable. While I can’t claim to have ever been thrown behind bars, with no good options and for no good reason, I can safely say that this is likely at least some of what it feels like to be victimized by the unjust money bail system. And we hope — strangely enough — that some of this translates into what you feel playing The Bail Trap game.

Yes, you read that right. We have made a game designed to frustrate, aggravate and agitate you. We want you to play a game you cannot win.

It’s not what we usually do. We are filmmakers and we usually tell stories. But we tell those stories because we are trying to create connections, to make viewers understand — viscerally in some cases — why a wrong needs to be righted, why a system must be overthrown, why individuals must break out of their comfort zones and get involved. Today we are working with a broad coalition of leaders working to end a system that offers one kind of justice for the rich and another kind entirely for the poor. We have told real stories, like that of Tai Sherman, a young woman with no criminal record whose college plans were derailed when she was held on $100,000 bail because an acquaintance was arrested for shoplifting $38 worth of dish soap and such from a Bay Area CVS.

We have exploded myths about the money bail system. And we have combined film and poetry to paint an emotionally resonant picture of how the repercussions of this system ripple outward in lives and communities.

This game is another way in. The reality is, we can’t and do not pretend to be able to make someone feel, through a video game, the depths of despair and hopelessness that must surely accompany having one’s freedom curtailed and the fallout thereafter. But even a little spark of intense frustration may help someone out there understand, just a little better, why a system that locks people up for the crime of being poor must be overthrown, immediately.

Think you can make your way through money bail system without getting trapped? Try it. See if you can figure out how to beat The Bail Trap game.

When you’re done playing, pick up the phone. If you’re in California, call your Assembly member. If you’re not in California, email Senator Kamala Harris to get involved on a national level. Tell them that in real life there is no reset button, no cheat codes. We made this mess, we have to clean it up. It’s time to #EndMoneyBail once and for all. Go to to find out more about fighting back against money bail.

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Death penalty taken off table for killer due to prosecutor and sheriff misconduct

Seal Beach
Photo by Flickr user Lars Plougmann

Death penalty taken off table for killer due to prosecutor and sheriff misconduct

A California judge has taken the death penalty off the table for Scott Dekraai after finding that the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department engaged in “chronic” corruption.

On Friday, Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals said Dekraai could not face the death penalty due to the repeated misconduct by both D.A. Tony Rackauckas’s office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Goethals had previously kicked Rackauckas’s office off Dekraai’s case in March 2015 due to the same misconduct. Dekraai pleaded guilty to killing eight people and wounded another in a 2011 shooting that the court called “the largest mass killing in the history of Orange County.”

Goethals’ order lambasted both offices for their respective roles in a notorious jailhouse snitch program that encouraged inmates to inform on other defendants. The judge also expressed displeasure with Rackauckas for failing to comply with orders to turn over additional information.

Goethals said the behavior of the prosecution — which he described as “chronic obstructionism” — and the Sheriff’s Department — which the court said acted with “indolence and obfuscation”— meant that a fair penalty trial could not be assured.

Tony Rackauckas

Goethals said the behavior of the prosecution — which he described as “chronic obstructionism” — and the Sheriff’s Department — which the court said acted with “indolence and obfuscation”— meant that a fair penalty trial could not be assured.

The court acknowledged the significance of its ruling, particularly given Dekraai’s crimes. But while “this defendant deserved swift and sure punishment for the terrible crimes he committed,” Goethals emphasized “maintaining the integrity and viability of Orange County’s criminal justice system remains of paramount importance.”

Goethals said courts must demand everyone follow the same rules to maintain the integrity of America’s system of justice. And if he permits any individual or agency to disregard its orders, to in effect ignore the law, then the court has failed to fulfill its sworn obligation to fairly and consistently enforce that law.

Dekraai has already pleaded guilty and Goethals indicated in his order that he planned to sentence Dekraai “to the maximum remaining possible sentence at [the] first legal opportunity to do so.” That sentence would amount to at least eight consecutive life terms in prison.

It will be up the office of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose office took over the case after Rackauckas was removed, to decide whether to appeal Goethals’ ruling.

There have been multiple reports that Rackauckas’s office planted jailhouse snitches and kept using them after some proviced information that was unreliable or false. Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens have both denied doing this, but some former inmates have come forward and said they worked as snitches for years.

Rackauckas has faced mounting scandals that recently led another public official to announce he will run for district attorney in 2018.

As reported by the OC Weekly, Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, a member of the California state assembly and former prosecutor, called for both Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to resign “before the end of their elected terms in office because of their ‘reprehensible’ conduct.”

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