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The Public Health Risks of Jailing People for Poverty

In Hillsborough County, Florida, the jail population is bloated by cash bail, fines, and fees, perpetuating health inequities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

As the coronavirus pandemic overwhelms America’s prisons and jails, some states and counties have acknowledged the public health risks of incarceration, and begun to release people

In Florida, the Hillsborough County sheriff’s office released 164 people in March who were accused of low-level crimes following a district court order. But the move is already facing backlash, after a man released from the jail was arrested in connection with a fatal shooting in Tampa. 

It is wrong to allow this one incident to halt or stifle decarceration efforts across the country. As one Tampa Bay Times article points out, the vast majority of incarcerated people pose no public safety risk: Half of the 164 people released from county jails were homeless or living in a homeless shelter, and those who had arrest records typically were accused of offenses like trespassing or drug possession. 

Further, many of them were in jail because they could not afford to pay cash bail, fines, or fees. In the age of the novel coronavirus, those poverty-driven jail stays have become potential death sentences, and high rates of infection in carceral facilities endanger all Americans.

The burden of bail, fines, and fees

An alarming proportion of people who enter the Hillsborough County Jail are detained there solely because they are poor. 

According to a report released by Human Impact Partners in February, 70 to 80 percent of people incarcerated in Hillsborough jails on any given day (2,100 to 2,400 people) were held pretrial, and the median bail amount in the county was $5,000. 

Nationwide, about 90 percent of people detained pretrial are in jail because they can’t afford bail; considering that 80 percent of criminal defendants can’t afford a lawyer, cash bail is an insurmountable obstacle for most people charged with crimes. And even if a defendant’s support network can pull together funds to pay bail, Florida allows courts to keep a substantial chunk of bond payments before they are returned—a defendant who posts bail through a bail bondsman would lose 10 percent of the total, plus a $50 public defender application fee, plus any applicable costs of prosecution. If they pay the bond without a bail bondsman, the entire amount is forfeit.

Pretrial incarceration in Hillsborough County is also a crisis that primarily affects the county’s Black community. Although just 16 percent of residents are Black, 43 percent of the  jail population is Black.

Florida’s regressive fines and fees practices also contribute to the crisis of pretrial detention in Hillsborough County. Because of a 1998 constitutional amendment requiring Florida courts to be funded entirely through the fines and fees they collect, county courts are particularly ruthless. Florida is also uniquely cruel in that its state law authorizes a 40 percent surcharge for overdue court debt, ensuring that people convicted of crimes will most likely never be able to escape the cycle of punishment and poverty.

In 2017, county law enforcement charged more than 10,000 Floridians with driving on a suspended license; considering that there were about 46,000 total Hillsborough County jail bookings in 2017, these charges contribute significantly to pretrial detention. Just like more than 40 other U.S. states, Florida suspends the driver’s license of residents who are unable to pay traffic tickets or court fines and fees. Research from the Fines and Fees Justice Center reveals that an astounding 75 percent of 2017 driver’s license suspensions in the county were related to unpaid fines and fees, and 22.5 percent of county residents with suspended licenses were Black. 

In January, the Hillsborough County Commissioners passed a resolution in support of statewide legislation to reform license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees. Andrew Warren, the county’s chief prosecutor, also testified in support of the resolution, and his office has implemented a policy to reduce the number of people who are ultimately convicted of driving on a suspended license in Hillsborough County. 

On bail reform, however, Warren’s office has moved more slowly. Despite signing on to an amicus brief in favor of bail reform in Harris County, Texas, he has only committed to implementing bail reform “in theory” for his own jurisdiction, citing the need for state legislation. 

Jails are a public health crisis

Hillsborough County’s bloated jail system is infamous for its deadliness and lack of accountability. According to a 2018 Tampa Bay Times investigation, at least 42 people have died in the county’s jails since 2008. It’s possible that this figure is even higher because many in-custody deaths are not reported or even tracked. None of these deaths resulted in criminal charges or disciplinary actions against jail guards, according to the Tampa Bay Times. 

Even if people manage to escape the jails with their lives, research suggests that incarceration in jails and resulting criminal legal debt carries long-lasting consequences for their financial, physical, and mental well-being

Nick, a formerly incarcerated person who spent time in Hillsborough County jails, attested to these harmful effects in an interview with the Human Impact Partners researchers: “I lost everything I owned while I was in jail—all my clothes, everything,” he said. “Everything my mom was spending on me, putting money on my phone, I had to pay back. And then I never got paid by the job to pay her back, so that sent me even farther into debt. … Everything you think about is just how to get out. And the more you realize you can’t, the more depressed you get.”

People who are incarcerated can’t show up to their jobs, which can pose challenges for family economic security and lead to loss of housing, childcare, healthcare, and more. These effects continue after people exit incarceration: One study in Philadelphia County and Miami-Dade County found that only approximately 38 percent of people incarcerated pretrial were employed three to four years following their bail hearing (compared to just under half of those who were not incarcerated). 

The Human Impact Partners report also says that job loss is associated with cardiovascular disease and higher rates of mortality, not to mention additional anxiety, stress, and depression. It should come as no surprise, then, that the suicide rate in county jails is 43 per 100,000, three times that of the general population. 

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbates these harms. Prisons and jails have been compared to “petri dishes,” where the virus can spread dozens of times more quickly—and incarcerated people typically lack access to adequate healthcare. 

Ironically, Hillsborough County residents must now be detained pretrial with “no bond” if they violate isolation or quarantine orders issued by the state Department of Health. This practice only risks further infection; if the person has COVID-19, they’ll spread it to other incarcerated people, and if they don’t, they may contract it from people in the jail already.  

The best way to protect residents from these collateral consequences is to significantly reduce the use of incarceration. Last year, religious organizers Faith in Florida coordinated a Father’s Day bailout to raise awareness about the consequences of pretrial detention in the county, suggesting a local appetite for bail reform. If advocates can successfully push for a massive scaling-down of incarceration at the local level, Hillsborough County may be able to reverse the enormously harmful or even deadly effects of county jails.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem writes about politics and culture, focusing on policing, austerity, and the criminalization of poverty. He currently works for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, but all views expressed in this piece are his own.