In a second ground-breaking criminal justice reform initiative of her short tenure, 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala will begin pushing for non-monetary releases rather than bail in many cases involving people charged with non-violent crimes.
Ayala contends that the state’s law on bail is not being followed. The result, she said, is too many people who are not flight risks or threats to the public are sitting in jails awaiting trial simply because they cannot afford to post bail.
“We want to make certain we are not perpetuating a debtor’s prison,” she told FloridaPolitics.
Her first major initiative, banning the death penalty in her circuit in 2017 shortly after she took office, didn’t go so well. After she announced it, the death penalty ban blew up into heated, six-month legal fight with Gov. Rick Scott that she eventually lost. That policy, too, was based on her views of Florida law.
Her new policy, which she said she will initiate on June 1, would have her office seek recognizance releases for residents of Orange or Osceola counties who are arrested for a list of non-violent offenses including possession of small amounts of cannabis, driving while license suspended, disorderly conduct, and loitering, provided there is no reason to presume the suspects are flight risks.
Further, the new policy would seek pretrial releases without monetary bail for local residents arrested for most other non-violent offenses, presuming there is no reason to think of them as flight risks. Under that program, suspects receive supervision from the circuit’s pre-trial services supervisors, and other conditions may also apply.
Ayala contends her new policy is in keeping with the letter and spirit of Florida law which explicitly calls for “a presumption in favor of release on non-monetary conditions” for non-dangerous offenses.
She said the system in place now, which her office inherited and continues, and which other state attorneys’ offices in Florida also use, calls for prosecutors to routinely seek money bail on almost all arrests.
Ayala’s office stated that over 75 percent of the people held in county jail are awaiting trial, and she said 74 percent of the people in the Orange County Jail are there on misdemeanors. She did not have deeper-dig numbers available to say how many of them fall into both of those groups and also were deemed non-flight risks, and who do not have prior arrests that would suggest them to be dangers to the community. Still, she said it is clear that many shouldn’t have to be in jail.
Her policy would insist on monetary bail for anyone arrested for crimes associated with domestic violence, stalking, firearms, and dangerous felonies. She also would seek monetary bail from anyone who wasn’t a local resident.
“There are violent, wealthy people who walk around our communities pre-trial, yet there are non-dangerous people who are sitting in custody because they can’t post a $250 bond,” Ayala said.
The current policy also affects communities of color most severely, she said.
“Realistically, it’s inherently discriminatory, because looking at the numbers and all of research, excessive bail disproportionately harms people of low income communities, which tend to be communities of color. We don’t have the local statistics, but nationally-speaking the Pretrial Justice Institute finds that black men face 35 percent higher bonds and Hispanics face 19 percent higher bonds,” she said.
“So there is a systemic race issue that we ought to be able to address. And if we can address it without endangering the community, I think it’s a requirement,” she concluded.
Ultimately, bail is always the decision of judges, though they take into consideration what the state attorney’s office is requesting.
Ayala has met with corrections officials in judges in Orange and Osceola counties to discuss her new policy.
“There is a national movement toward non-monetary bond,” Fred Lauten, chief judge in the 9th Judicial Circuit stated in a news release issued by Ayala’s office. “One of the issues with monetary release is it benefits the wealthy while it is an impediment to people with lesser means.”
Ayala said the bail system also can make it difficult for people to get their lives going, leading to more crime. If they can’t afford bail money and wind up sitting in jail awaiting trial, they’re probably losing their jobs and homes, and sending any family into financial tailspins, she suggested.
“All the research proves that the longer people sit behind bars the more likely they are to commit crimes when they get out. You’re dealing with low-level criminals. Let’s get them back into their jobs, into their homes, back with their families, to pursue the societal obligation that they have, versus keeping them away from jobs until they don’t have jobs, and they get into that cycle of crime.”
Will there be political and legal blowback? Ayala says she has the law squarely on her side. Yet she said something similar when she rolled out her death penalty ban in March 2017, only to lose in the Florida Supreme Court.
“If anyone responded, it doesn’t matter who they are or at what level, if anyone responds negatively they’re responding contrary to Florida law, because I am making certain that we are being consistent with Florida law,” Ayala said of her new bail policy. “And I would hope all who are involved in our system of justice would honor that as well.”