By Noreen Marcus,FloridaBulldog.org
David Ortiz, 33, chose to spend New Year’s weekend in Broward County Jail rather than return to the streets of Fort Lauderdale.
Charged with lifting $26.90 worth of goods from a Walgreens and stealing a cab ride, he had already spent 23 days in jail. Yet on Dec. 28, when Ortiz appeared before Broward County Judge Jill Levy, this tall, burly man in a green-striped uniform, flimsy jail sandals and full shackles — a routine practice — quietly accepted a no-contest plea. He agreed to wait behind bars five more days until he could move into the First Step Sober House, a small addiction treatment center in Pompano Beach.
Part of his deal was restitution to Walgreens, but Ortiz couldn’t make the $125 bail so no one seriously expects him to follow through. If he doesn’t quickly find a job that allows him to pay about $100-a-week rent to First Step, he’ll be kicked out, according to Melinda Blostein, a supervising assistant public defender.
“They do have success at the sober-living homes if people are ready for it, but there’s just not a lot of support,” says Blostein, the liaison between her office and Broward social agencies. After 21 years of service, she’s not a fan of the system’s reliance on jail as a dysfunctional trauma center.
“It’s the most costly solution, putting someone in a cage, shackling them like an animal and giving them no treatment. You’re getting little to no return on the money that you’ve spent,” Blostein says.
Broward Chief Judge Jack Tuter says jail costs about $140 per prisoner per day. In contrast, halfway houses cost $100 to $150 per week, and clients must either start paying rent or leave, according to Blostein.
Tuter doesn’t want to confine people only because they’re too poor to make bail. “There’s something wrong with housing people in the jail who have committed minor, non-violent offenses,” he says.
Officials say homeless people typically cycle through the streets to the jail and court and back to the streets again—often ending up doing hard time when their three misdemeanors add up to a felony. Well-meaning judges like Levy work with overburdened public defenders to find targeted programs, as they did for Ortiz, but their options have shrunk over time.
The Broward Outreach Center homeless shelters used to accept direct referrals from the courts, but that effective practice has been shelved — with one exception — in favor of a seemingly unworkable process.
Jail inmates who have no access to phones are supposed to apply for a shelter bed by phone; if they’re free they must track down a homeless outreach van that has no fixed location. A GPS would help, but homeless people usually don’t own cell phones. And if they suffer from mental illness, as most of them do, the bureaucratic hurdles are confusing and scary enough to be insurmountable, their advocates say.
When mentally ill and homeless, non-violent offenders recognize they need help and request it properly, they may go to Mental Health Court. Last month presiding Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren combined gentle persuasion with legal advocacy to convince county officials she should be allowed to resume the BOC shelter referrals.
But that solution, limited to Mental Health Court, leaves out the many other homeless clients of the public defender’s office whose problems prevent them from making good choices.
“Mental Health Court in misdemeanor is voluntary, and no matter how much we may want our clients to stay in there, they reject or opt out,” says Ruby Green, the 31-year-old dynamo who oversees the public defender’s County Court operation.
“A great many people who are mentally ill do not believe that they are, in fact, mentally ill, which is why they choose not to stay in mental health court. But does this mean that they are not ill and are not deserving of services because their illness drives them to neglect their well-being? The answer to that is no!” Green asserts.
Referral problem continues
Ever since Lerner-Wren’s successful gambit, other County Court judges complain to public defenders they’re still turned down when they try to make BOC referrals. Nor are public defenders allowed to make referrals for their own clients, Green says.
“This is disturbing because now where do we turn? There are not that many places willing to take our clients straight out of custody and not charge them, because if they can’t afford $25 bail, what makes you think they can afford to pay for somewhere to be?”
Tuter is sympathetic but says there’s only so much the court system can do about an intractable, decades-old situation without support from the city and county.
Still, the chief judge is taking some independent steps. Next month he’ll assign a full time first-appearance judge to focus on pre-trial release and other methods to keep people out of custody while they await trial.
“I’m willing to do our part and see if we can treat them more humanely, but housing them in the county jail is not the way to treat our homeless population,” he says. “It’s a societal issue that the county and city will have to wrestle with.”
A year ago, the county’s Homeless Initiative Partnership agency surveyed the homeless population and counted 2,450 individuals, more than half of them in Fort Lauderdale.
Tuter says he’s open to meeting with outside officials to discuss alternatives like building a shelter on land near Fort Lauderdale’s downtown bus station where homeless people congregate. He adds that he’s made progress at holding down a problematic jail population but isn’t equipped to solve the overall problem of the homeless and the jail.
“It’s beyond the pay grade of a chief judge,” Tuter says.