Poor defendants accused of minor crimes will no longer need cash to get out of Broward jail

Defendants at the Broward County jail will have an easier time being released from custody after court officials moved to de-emphasize monetary bond for people accused of misdemeanor crimes.
Defendants at the Broward County jail will have an easier time being released from custody after court officials moved to de-emphasize monetary bond for people accused of misdemeanor crimes. Sun Sentinel

If you get arrested for a minor crime in Broward, you may no longer be required to front money to get out of jail.

Broward County’s court system announced Monday that judges will no longer emphasize cash when considering releasing someone from behind bars on a misdemeanor charge, a practice long derided by critics as draconian and unfair to poor defendants.

Instead, for most misdemeanors such as petty theft, marijuana possession or public intoxication, judges will presume someone can be released on their “own recognizance” to await trial.

“An individual’s entitlement to reasonable pretrial release conditions shall not be tied to their financial ability to post a monetary bond,” the court system said Monday in a news release.

The policy change won’t affect everyone charged with misdemeanors — those accused of drunk driving, stalking, violating a court order, indecent exposure, battery, domestic violence and animal cruelty may still have to post bond before leaving jail to await trial.

Broward County now joins other major metropolitan regions across the nation that have moved away from jailing people for low-level crimes and keeping them behind bars in lieu of cash. The courts announced that the policy change is supported by Broward State Attorney Mike Satz, Sheriff Gregory Tony, and Public Defender Howard Finkelstein.

On bond reform, Broward County has been behind the times for years, said Gordon Weekes, the Public Defender Office’s chief assistant. He said poor defendants, particularly the homeless, would often spend exorbitant time in jail for crimes like trespassing.

“If you are homeless, you don’t have $100 to post a bond,” Weekes said.

Tony, the Broward sheriff, said the new policy will do more than just relieve overcrowded jails.

“This initiative is designed to lessen the financial impact and allow these offenders to maintain their employment and ties to the community while their cases proceed through the court,” he said.

Will Snowden, director of the New Orleans office of the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit outfit that studies judicial system inequities and works with local governments, called Broward County’s decision “a move in the right direction.”

“Individuals charged with misdemeanors — with a few exceptions — might not pose a threat to public safety,” he said.

Snowden said there are two main considerations with releasing those jailed over minor offenses: will they show up and public safety. And, he said, “money has nothing to do with any of these.”

Also, said Snowden, “local jails having fewer people allows local agencies to focus more resources on individuals who might pose public safety issues.”

Before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, local New Orleans jails had about 6,000 inmates. The number is closer to 1,400 now. Though New Orleans no longer holds state prisoners in jail cells, most of the reduction has been credited to a municipal ordinance that did away with cash bond requirements for those charged with minor crimes.

Over the past decade, Miami-Dade — the most populous county in the state — has emphasized releasing defendants without requiring them to put up cash. Back in 2007, the jail population approached 7,000 daily. Today, Miami-Dade’s jail daily population usually hovers at about 3,900 each day.

Likewise in New Jersey, which also moved away from cash bonds, and where the jail population has dropped about 30 percent since 2016 while crime continues to dip. New York just introduced legislation that will do away with cash bonds for most misdemeanor charges starting in January.