Broward chief judge leads push to release from jail nonviolent poor who can’t make bail

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward Chief Judge Jack Tuter Photo: J.A.A.B Blog

Concerned that poor people charged with minor, nonviolent offenses who can’t post bond are clogging the jail at taxpayers’ expense, Broward Chief Judge Jack Tuter is spearheading a push to release more of them before trial.

“If you are in jail more than a couple of days on a low bond, you are probably there because you can’t afford to post the bond. People shouldn’t be waiting in jail simply because they are poor,” Tuter said in an interview last week. “It’s a multi-faceted problem, but my goal is to get out those with ties to the community and some degree of assurance they’ll show up in court.”

Tuter, who took over as chief judge on July 1, said recent Broward jail statistics showed that 321 people were being held on bonds of under $5,000. Low-risk individuals in that group with no other pending charges are the focus of Tuter’s concern.

Broward’s County Court judges serve on a rotating basis as first appearance, or Bond Court judges. Earlier this month, Tuter and representatives from the Broward Sheriff’s pretrial diversion program met with those judges for a refresher about the options for judges when dealing with incoming defendants, including less costly electronic monitoring and releasing defendants on their own recognizance.

“Most judges knew this, but I reemphasized it,” said Tuter. “Is there an alternative to jail?”

The chief judge’s action was warmly met by Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, who has long accused local judges of fostering a “double standard” of justice by ignoring the disparate treatment of minorities and the indigent.

“Broward County is taking its first steps to end the institutionalized racist justice system that has existed in our county for the past 50 years,” Finkelstein said. “We have a chief judge who’s trying to figure out the right thing.”

Broward’s jails have a troubled history that led to decades of federal monitoring to protect the constitutional rights of inmates. In 1976, inmates sued alleging a variety of constitutional violations stemming from overcrowding, abuse and inadequate medical care. The case was largely settled last December – 40 years later.

Chronic overcrowding is not currently a problem, with the inmate population under 4,000 and about 77 percent of the system’s 5,144 bed capacity.

More reductions sought

Still, Tuter wants to see that number lower. “I’d like to see it under 70 percent,” he said.

The cost to house an inmate in Broward is about $150 a day. The cost to taxpayers to keep 30 inmates who can’t meet a small bond in jail for 30 days is about $135,000. In contrast, Tuter said it costs $5 a day to put an ankle monitor on a defendant.

The question of who should be released is complicated by several factors, not the least of which is how to deal with defendants who don’t have a permanent address. An address is required for pretrial release. It allows the court system to notify defendants when they must appear in court so judges don’t have to order deputies to go out and pick them up.

When low-bond defendants remain in custody for more than five days or a week judges typically take a “second look” to see if a reason exists to let them out. But if the courts are not successful in further reducing the jail population, Tuter will consider instituting a “third look docket” that will have judges go to the jail to make “a more refined approach” to finding pretrial release.

The court has a lengthy schedule of “convenience bonds” that offer defendants preset amounts they can post to get out of jail, depending on the charge, without even seeing a judge. The bond range is from $25 to $500,000.

Public Defender Finkelstein wants to end the use of convenience bonds, which he says are convenient to judges and the well-to-do, but not his typically indigent clients. Tuter, who was appointed to Broward’s circuit court bench by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005, has no plans to scrap the schedule.

Still, change that promises to address old grievances has begun.

“Broward seems to be coming out of its constitutional slumber,” said Finkelstein. “It’s like the lights went on and everybody realizes we haven’t been doing things right.”

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