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Money bail system challenged in Jacksonville, Florida

Money bail system challenged in Jacksonville, Florida

Two prominent Jacksonville civil rights attorneys are challenging bail practices for misdemeanor charges in Northeast Florida’s 4th Judicial Circuit.

Attorneys William Sheppard and Elizabeth White argue that current practices unfairly punish those unable to afford bail.

The lawsuit maintains that judges in the 4th Judicial Circuit, which consists of Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, don’t inquire as to whether defendants can post bail. Instead, as the complaint alleges, “[t]he amount of money required is determined by a generic offense-based bail schedule or a policy and practice of Jacksonville officials imposing money bail amounts without considering the person’s ability to pay.”

“The Duval County Jail is seriously overcrowded,” Sheppard observed in a written statement to Folio Weekly, “in part because the Sheriff is holding misdemeanants solely because of their inability to pay their way out of jail. Long ago, Charles Dickens wrote about debtors’ prisons-and that’s all this is.”

A January report from the Florida Department of Corrections found that Duval County locks up an average of 444 misdemeanor defendants a day, more than any other county in the state.

Sheppard and White, who are married, represent three individuals, arrested on misdemeanor charges, who were incarcerated because they could not afford to post bail. Joseph Menter, who is homeless, was charged with simple battery and held on $2,508 bail that he could not afford to pay. James Davis was also charged on simple battery and, like Menter, had bail set at $2,508. Davis, too, could not afford to pay that amount. The third named plaintiff, Jonathan Daniels, is also homeless. His initial bond for petty theft was set at $1,508.

Each defendant later had his bail amount increased although court records don’t explain why the amounts were up. But former 4th Judicial Circuit Public Defender Bill White told In Justice Today that the bail setting process in Jacksonville has, for decades, been “punitive, even if no one wants to admit it. Judges want defendants to take plea deals to clear their caseloads.”

And part of that is that judges routinely raise bail in the hopes of pressuring defendants to cut deals, White said.

One judge, who White did not identify, admitted that he sets high bail amounts in order to coerce defendants to take guilty pleas. “It’s much easier to push a defendant into taking a plea deal when they’re locked up in jail,” White explained. “Alternatively, defendants have more leverage when they’re coming into court through the front door, and not the jailhouse door.”

Melissa Nelson, who became the State Attorney for the 4th Judicial Circuit in January, has declared her support for bail reform, stating that she doesn’t want a system where indigent defendants are stuck in jail simply because they can’t afford bail.

“We are training lawyers right now they cannot punish anybody for indigency,” Nelson said. “We are not interested in prosecutors using the jail as pre-trial detention.”

But White expressed skepticism about Nelson’s claims. “For years we’d meet with the elected state attorney and they would say they didn’t want people locked up because they couldn’t pay bail,” he said. “Then we’d go into the courtrooms and the prosecutors working for those elected state attorneys were pushing to increase our clients’ bail.”

Bail reform has become a priority of criminal justice advocates nationwide. Similar lawsuits challenging bail procedures have been filed in Harris County, Texas, San Francisco, California, and Calhoun, Georgia. Newly elected District Attorneys in major cities, including Houston and Chicago, have moved quickly to change bail practices there. The Democratic nominee for district attorney in Philadelphia, Larry Krasner, has made it a key campaign issue.

Political leaders of both parties are also starting to embrace bail reform. This past year, with the support of the Governor and the Attorney General, New Jersey enacted broad reforms to the way in which bail is set, with the goal of eliminating the large economic disparities between those who are detained pre-trial and those who are released. In July, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a Republican, and California Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat, introduced legislation designed to encourage states to eliminate cash bail systems.

Sheppard and White are accustomed to taking on high profile legal cases. In the 1970s, they challenged the constitutionality of overcrowding in the Duval County jail. Later, they successfully argued before the U.S Supreme Court in Doggett v. United States that a delay between indictment and arrest violated a constitutional right to a speedy trial. Outside the realm of criminal justice, the duo spearheaded the lawsuit that resulted in marriage equality in Florida.

Thanks to Jake Sussman.

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