Recently, the Tampa Bay Times printed an editorial titled: “Why pay to hold someone in jail because they don’t have $250?” I understand that the Tampa Bay Times clearly noted “Opinions/Editorial” on the Editorial page. As a taxpayer, I certainly understand the concern of the editor. However, once the facts are revealed the concern gets murkier.
The opinion was that three individuals arrested and booked into jail should have been released without the need to post a bond. The opinion only printed the names of two of the three defendants. Therefore, simple and easy research was performed using public information on Nicholas Thompson and Alexander Collins, the defendants noted in the editorial.
Before we go further, we must understand the purpose of bail and 8th Amendment. The purpose of bail is appearance for every required court date. “Bail shall not be excessive” is enshrined in the 8th Amendment. The courts have ruled that if a person cannot afford bail, it is not necessarily excessive.
While the two defendants named in the article are certainly not public enemy number one, they both have prior arrests, convictions, and probation violations in Hillsborough County albeit mostly for minor crimes. Nicholas Thompson has twelve prior arrests with felony convictions and several probation violations. Alexander Collins has four prior arrests, convictions, and probation violations over the past year.
After learning the criminal history of the individuals involved and that the jail noted their addresses as “at large” likely meaning they are homeless, I understand why an experienced judge decided a minimal bond would help ensure the defendants attend all their court dates. In the case of Mr. Collins and Mr. Thompson, their bail was paid by Faith in Florida who will now act as their indemnitor to ensure they go to court. In most cases that is how bail works. Like some bank loans, car loans, and other types of loans, some bail requires a co-signer. It is an extra level of assurance. It also promptly facilitates the release of many individuals without the need for a formal hearing.
As stated previously the purpose of bail is appearance. Houston Texas decided to release all misdemeanor defendants without bail about two years ago. Houston now has a failure to appear rate close to fifty percent. What is the cost associated with having judges, jury’s, bailiffs, attorneys, etc. in court ready to proceed, however, the defendant does not show up? One study estimated over $1700. What is the cost for law enforcement to apprehend those who abscond? Houston had over 17,000 open misdemeanor warrants as of February 1, 2019.
OK, Houston proves releasing all defendants accused of a misdemeanor with no bail is not a good solution. Why not go with a Washington DC or New Jersey type pretrial release system? In those systems government paid employees are responsible for keeping track of and ensuring defendants attend all their court dates. The problem? They are unaffordable. DC costs taxpayers about $65 million per year which is over $4500 per defendant, booked and released. New Jersey the cost has been over $200 million since “reform” took place in 2017, which is about $3600 per defendant. The cost to Florida taxpayers for a similar system would be over $500 million per year!
Florida, unlike some other states, already has an affordable and progressive bail system. Thousands of defendants in Florida, each year, are released on their own recognizance on minor charges. Attend a first appearance hearing in Hillsborough County and you will see many are released without having to post a monetary bond. Florida also has a very low pretrial detention rate. Of the 725,000 arrests each year, less than one-half of one-percent of the jail population are pretrial misdemeanor defendants on any given day.
The bail system, like the jury system, is not perfect. Should Mr. Collins and Mr. Thompson have been released without any bond? That determination was made by an experienced judge who likely reviewed their past criminal records in addition to their current residence status. Let experienced judges who are looking at all the facts continue to make bail determinations. After learning the facts, it is not so simple to state, “just release everyone”.