By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Bail reform came to Broward last year crafted to allow poor people arrested for misdemeanors and non-violent third-degree felonies, but who pose no risk to the public, to get out of jail without having to post any cash.
So far, Broward is the only Florida county to have moved away from employing a strict, lengthy bond schedule requiring cash bail in varying amounts for low-level defendants to get out of jail before their first appearance in court. (People charged with a first-degree felony must post a $15,000 bond to be released; second degree felony bonds are $7,500.)
There’s been some local criticism, mostly from defense lawyers upset about a get-tough change that requires defendants charged with DUI to see a judge before bail can be set, but nothing like the controversy that erupted in New York in 2019 after the legislature passed a bill that ended bail for most nonviolent offenses. That law was rolled back in April 2020 after the New York City Police Department reported a spike in crime and blamed the relaxed bail rules.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis recently jumped into the fray – though without taking any pot shots at Broward. At a press conference in Miami in late January, he “vowed to block ‘rogue’ judges pursuing bail reform,” according to The Miami Herald. The governor’s remarks prompted Miami-Dade Chief Judge Nushin Sayfie to immediately withdraw the impending promulgation of a bail reform policy similar to Broward’s.
Meanwhile, anti-reform bills are moving through the state House and Senate. SB 1534 would among other things prohibit “persons arrested for, rather than charged with, a dangerous crime from being granted nonmonetary pretrial release at a first appearance hearing.” How the bills might impact Broward isn’t clear.
Broward Chief Judge Jack Tuter issued an administrative reform order that took effect last May after lengthy consultations with and the agreements of Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony, Broward State Attorney Harold Pryor and Broward Public Defender Gordon Weekes.
NO CASH BAIL
In an interview, Tuter said that under the new policy the county jail has released about 237 defendants a month on their own recognizance, without the need for them to see a judge or post a small cash bond, but on the promise that they’ll return to court for trial. (Some third-degree felony defendants are also required to wear an electronic monitor). That’s 237 people a month – mostly poor and/or minorities – who aren’t languishing in jail at taxpayers’ expense on low level charges like grand theft under $5,000, urinating in public, disorderly conduct or simple trespass.
Today, Tuter said, it costs $224 a night to house an inmate. Last year, it cost $197. “You could get a pretty good hotel room for that,” Tuter said.
“I feel like it’s making progress,” said Tuter. “And the reason I say its making progress is I feel certain that if any of these people we were releasing ROR (court lingo for releasing a person on his/her own recognizance) and at booking then went out and committed a serious incident a police chief or somebody else would call and ask why did that person get out?”
For decades, Broward’s jail system was routinely overcrowded – up to 5,400 inmates at its peak. The situation was a political embarrassment and was so bad the federal courts had to intervene. Today, the jail’s population is about 3,300, or approximately 82 percent of the 4,100 available beds, Tuter said.
Curiously, that percent has increased a bit from 77 percent at the outset of the program last May. Tuter doesn’t know why but hopes to get an understanding after a detailed review of the bail reform program to begin after it reaches its first anniversary in May.
REPORTING FLIPS A STORY
So far, the system appears to have met the essential requirement that those who might be dangerous are not to be released without first seeing a judge.
The reporting of this story began because it appeared otherwise. Court filings showed that a state-designated sexual predator – Sonny Michael Steel – had slipped through the cracks and been released on his own recognizance following his Feb. 23 arrest by Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents on 12 counts of failing to register as a sexual predator and providing false sexual predator information by act or omission.
FDLE began its investigation in January after a boat registered in Steel’s name was seized as part of a human smuggling investigation stemming from the mass migration deployment in the Florida Keys. An FDLE press release says Steel registered the boat in compliance with Florida sexual predator laws, but failed to register a yellow school bus and travel trailer. FDLE agents also found, that on 12 separate occasions, he provided an incorrect license plate for a pick-up truck he owned.
Steel, who has a lengthy felony arrest record, was sentenced to eight years in prison followed by 10 years of probation in 2000 for sexually battering a victim who was physically helpless to resist – a 14-year-old girl. The Sun-Sentinel reported at the time that the girl was an overnight guest at Steel’s Plantation home and a friend of Steele’s teen-age daughter.
On Feb. 24, the committing magistrate, County Court Judge Corey Amanda Cawthorn, found probable cause to believe Steel was guilty, but also ordered Steel ROR’d, apparently because the charges were all third-degree felonies.
Yet because of the policy’s checks and balances Steel wasn’t released then. Detention deputies are required to verify a defendant’s permanent address before they are ROR’d, but the address Steel gave couldn’t be confirmed, Tuter said.
Steel, 69, was finally arraigned on March 21 before Judge Tim Bailey. He pleaded not guilty and bond was set at $10,000 and other conditions were imposed, including that Steel wear an electronic ankle monitor. Steel posted the bond and was released three days later.