ACLU of Florida proposes 14 ways to decrease overcrowding at Escambia County Jail

The ACLU of Florida recently published a report, with 14 recommendations to decrease overcrowding at the Escambia County Jail. The report, titled “Smart Jail for Escambia County: Factsheet and Recommended Solutions,” notes that Escambia County spends about $46.5 million annually on incarceration. In addition to recommendations to address overcrowding, the report also addresses issues such as public safety, liability to the County and social costs associated with incarceration.

The report notes:

“Escambia needs a criminal justice system that is cost effective, operates fairly, and keeps us safe. However, our 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. All data in this report is based on an analysis of Escambia inmate data on July 31, 2017, which serves as a snapshot of the jail’s makeup. As of that date, Escambia County detained approximately 1795 people, giving it one of the highest jail incarceration rates in the state. According to the Florida Department of Corrections, Escambia’s incarceration rate is roughly 80% higher than the state average, even though its crime rate is only 40% higher than state average. In our county, falling crime rates have not resulted in falling incarceration. Unlike prisons which only hold people convicted of felonies, our jails hold a mixture of people. About a third of the inmates have been convicted and are serving relatively short sentences. Another third is individuals deemed ineligible for release because the inmates have been accused — but not yet found to have — of a violation of probation, terms of pretrial release, or for some other reason. The last third await trial and thus are presumed innocent. Because of this mixed population, simple changes to our policies and practices can result in rapid and significant declines in the jail population. With commitment from local stakeholders and local government, Escambia can build and manage a smarter jail — a jail that saves taxpayer money, both now and in the long term, with no compromise to public safety…”
The report also notes that 44% are being held on non-violent charges, and approximately 35% of the people detained by Escambia County have been convicted, whereas the other roughly two-thirds have not been convicted.

Recommendations included in the report are grouped into three categories: expanding and improving pretrial supervision practices, bail reform, and suggestions for streamlining the overall system from arrest to resolution. The report contains detailed and informative explanations and background for each recommendation.

The general recommendations are:

A. Expand and Improve Pretrial Supervision Practices.

  • Actuarial Risk Assessment: Update risk assessment to a validated, evidence-based tool upon which judges can confidently rely.
  • Court Date Notification: Implement calling / texting service to notify defendants of upcoming court dates.
  • Pretrial Services: Rely on the County’s Pretrial Services in lieu of monetary bail.
  • GPS Monitoring: Limit electronic monitoring to high-risk defendants and only as an alternative to pretrial detention — at public expense.
  • Drug Testing: Significantly limit or eliminate drug testing as a condition of pretrial release.
B. Tailor Any Monetary Bail to its purpose.
  • Signature Bonds: Permit unsecured appearance bonds.
  • Single Charge Bail: Impose monetary bail only on most serious charge.
  • Unaffordable Bail: Require state to justify need for unaffordable bail and find that no alternative measures or additional conditions of pretrial release.
  • Consideration of Dangerousness: Manage dangerous defendants through the established procedure for pretrial detention, not by imposing high monetary bail.
C. Streamline the System — From Arrest to Resolution
  • Notice to Appear: Law enforcement use notice to appear in lieu of arrest.
  • VOP & FTA No Bonds: Issue summons for violation of probation and failure to appear.
  • Bail Hearings: Promptly hear motions to modify bail.
  • Waive Court Appearance: Reduce failures to appear by eliminating the need to appear.
  • Plea Offers: Timely provide charge assessment and plea offers (score sheets).

The ACLU of Florida also released a YouTube video titled “Why we need bail reform in Florida,” featuring Escambia County Commissioners Lumon May (D) and Jeff  Bergosh (R) and First Circuit Court Judge Thomas Dannheisser. Dannheisser points out that “GPS monitoring is at least less than 10% of what it costs to keep someone in jail.” On a federal level, Senators Kamala Harris (D) and Rand Paul (R) have introduced bipartisan bail reform legislation.