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Melba Pearson: Miami-Dade monetary bail change — too little, too late

This policy change is an interesting pivot — and one that raises more questions than it answers.

After years of stonewalling criminal justice reform advocates, Miami-Dade State Attorney Kathy Fernandez Rundle announced a new policy on monetary bail via Twitter Friday night. She claims that for the past few months, “prosecutors have been asking that low-level misdemeanor defendants be released on their own recognizance rather than on monetary bonds.”

This policy change is an interesting pivot — and one that raises more questions than it answers.

First, what has changed in the last year?

I, along with a contingent of concerned attorneys and community members, met with Rundle in 2018 to discuss the American Civil Liberties Union’s Unequal Treatment report, which found Black Miamians were more than 2.3 times as likely as white Miamians to be locked up in jail before being found guilty of any crime. I implored the State Attorney to stop unnecessarily locking up people by seeking cash bail for low-level offenses.

Rundle told us that she had no intention of ever ending cash bail for a single offense.

Since announcing that she was seeking an eighth term in office, Rundle has been aggressively raising money from bail bonds companies and bail bond operators, receiving 12 donations totaling $3,200 in the last two months.

Did she tell her donors the same thing she told me — that she had no intention of real reform for Miami-Dade’s cash bail system?

My biggest concern with her sudden announcement is that she may be maintaining, or even worsening, the racial disparities with this change in policy. Because of her vague announcement Friday, we simply don’t know.

Are all low-level misdemeanor defendants being released on their own recognizance? Are some low-level offenders not being offered this alternative? What offenses count as low-level misdemeanors?

Having prosecuted these crimes myself, I know all misdemeanors are low-level by nature — so what is included?

Rundle’s statements make it far from transparent how broadly this new policy is being implemented.

In the State Attorney’s Friday night tweets, she quoted a Miami Herald article that said: “Today, Miami-Dade’s jail daily population usually hovers at about 3,900 each day.”

However, miamidade.gov shows that during Jan. 3, 2020, the total number of inmates in Miami-Dade jails was 5,012.

Miami-Dade deserves accountability and transparency. Rundle must release the raw data behind her new bail policy so we can see the actual numbers. That’s what I would do if I were the State Attorney in Miami-Dade.

I would safely reduce Miami-Dade’s jail population by using cash bail for its intended purpose — which is to keep our communities safe and ensure all defendants show up for their day in court.

The Florida Constitution says that “every person charged with a crime or violation of municipal or county ordinance shall be entitled to pretrial release on reasonable conditions.”

For decades, Rundle has fueled mass incarceration by encouraging her prosecutors to seek cash bail for virtually every offense.

This practice has resulted in tens of thousands of low-level offenders and innocent people remaining locked up in jail simply because they could not afford their freedom — not because they have been convicted of a crime.

Miami-Dade desperately needs to reform its monetary bail system, but I fear Rundle’s policy change is far from what we need.

Miami-Dade deserves policies that bring equal justice to all. We deserve accountability and transparency. After 26 years, the people of Miami-Dade County deserve more than weak, ambiguous and watered-down bail reform from their top law enforcement officer.

This change is too little, too late. Miami-Dade needs real reform.

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Melba Pearson is an attorney in Miami and recently retired as deputy executive director of ACLU FL. Before working at the ACLU, Pearson served over 15 years as a prosecutor in the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

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