Prison over Freedom? Florida Woman Asks to go Back into Jail to Avoid Homelessness and a Probation Violation

December 4, 2021 Criminal Defense, Probation Violation

Prison over Freedom? Florida Woman Asks to go Back into Jail to Avoid Homelessness and a Probation Violation

Most of the time when people have served time in jail, they’re most excited for the day that they get released. The thought of freedom and returning to society keeps hope alive. Let’s be honest, a jail cell is not a comfortable place to spend your life. However, what happens if you have no other options on the outside? What is the alternative if the place you’ve been locked in acts as more of a shelter than the outside? A Florida woman has recently dealt with this dilemma and has gone back to court to ask the judge the unthinkable—to send her back into jail.

Flagler County local Tonya Bennett has recently taken to the courtroom stand to plea to the judge to take away her freedom once again. In her eyes, she may believe it is providing more than taking away. Alongside her public defender Bill Bookhammer, she explained to the judge that she felt as if she was a changed person due to the 14 months she had spent in jail. She had also seen many people leave and go back in after being released, causing her to doubt and fear for herself.

There was no new crime committed, nor was there any probation violation at that point. There was nothing done that could have caused the judicial system any trouble. Yet after serving a little over a year for an arson charge, Bennett was concerned about the potential of violating her probation. She was meant to move in with one of her daughters after her release but found out that it was no longer an option and would potentially end up homeless.

With a 10 year-long probation period, Bennett didn’t want to risk missing any of her probation appointments or a possible failure to provide a valid address to her probation officer. She realized what kind of threat that would be hanging over her head for 10 years and did the math. She realized it would be a safer bet to take the original sentence of a three-year prison term, most of which she had already served. This case raises many questions about the state of inmates once released and the care they are provided. It also brings up the issue of homelessness and how many homeless people choose to commit crimes in order to go to jail and avoid sleeping on the streets. Is there a solid solution for these issues? Or has Tonya Bennett gotten it right by forcing herself back into a jail cell to avoid recidivism?

What was the Original Case?

Tonya Bennett has had several run-ins with the law in the past. She had previously been convicted for charges of drugs and battery. She had spent a year in the state prison for an aggravated battery charge from 2013. There was a chance back then to avoid prison time, but she had unfortunately violated her probation. Which probably played in part with her decision-making this time around.

In June of 2020, there was an incident in her local Family Dollar store. She had started a fire in the back end of the store, where customers had been in. Even though a police officer was able to put out the fire quickly, the fact that there were other people in the store that could have been harmed led Bennett to receive a first-degree felony charge for arson. Eventually, the State Attorney was able to downgrade it to a second-degree felony charge for arson. Although it was downgraded, it was still a serious offense resulting in a potential 15-year maximum sentence in prison.

What were the Struggles after Leaving Jail?

While in prison she was able to receive medication for mental illness, but after getting released she did not have the same accessibility. There were also issues in getting her into the non-profit rehabilitation organization Phoenix House, along with other diversion programs.

Bennett had originally been assured by one of her daughters that she could stay with her after she was released from jail. Unfortunately, Bennett found out this was not the case and was left stranded without anywhere to go. Her other daughter—Latvia Bennett—was in the courtroom on the day her mother pleaded to go back into jail. She said that her mother was still in recovery and entered a plea arrangement that was not actually in her best interest. She also stressed that her mother was in serious need of mental health services and that a 10-yearlong probation was setting her up for failure.

What Were the Responses?

It’s no surprise that the judge was somewhat of a shocked after hearing Bennett’s plea. It’s not very often that newly released inmates ask to return to jail. When she stated her case, the judge asked Bennett if going back into jail was what she actually wanted. “I would like to do my time in prison because I’m scared I might be homeless,” Bennett’s response comes as heartbreaking.

The judge went on to question her intentions, asking if she were to stay out that she would end up violating her probation, to which Bennett responded yes. If she were to violate her probation, she would have to serve 47 to 48 months in jail. Instead, she’ll only have to serve 36 months, most of which she had already served before being released.

Even Bennett’s public defender, Bookhammer, typically the person who fights for his client’s freedom, considered Bennett’s situation in light of her circumstances. Though it’s his job to ensure he does everything in his power to keep clients out of jail, this case was much different than the typical case. When he addressed the judge, Bookhammer expresssed that the biggest problems being faced were trying to figure out a living and rehab situation for Bennett. “We don’t have no jail diversion program like we used to way back…it’s sort of a rotten situation that she doesn’t have anybody to be a case manager,” Bookhammer explained.

After all the discussion in the courtroom, Bennett’s future was decided. The judge got rid of the previous sentencing and took a new plea from Bennett, with a new sentence of three years in prison. There is credit added from the time she had already served, so it is likely that Bennett will only have to serve a little over a year in prison. Yet the question remains—what happens after she gets out in a year’s time? The issues of housing and mental health treatment are still looming over Bennett’s head. If there is anything to learn from this case, it’s that it highlights the uncompromising severity of the judicial system’s probation system, and how jail cells end up being the only asylum for people suffering from mental illness or homelessness.

Scary Statistics about Homelessness

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness released statistics in January 2020 from a study done by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The study shows that Florida had over 27,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given day. Included in that number are family households, veterans, unaccompanied young adults, and individuals experiencing chronic homelessness.

The Florida Department of Corrections Office has the motto: “Inspiring Success by Transforming One Life at a Time.” They offer the Bureau of Substance Use Treatment, which is supposed to offer services, and develop resources for inmates transitioning from prison back into the community. Their goal is to help inmates and returning citizens lead healthy lifestyles, avoid recidivism, and create safer communities. The following is a list of the programs they offer:

  • Outpatient Program – Individual and group counseling for inmates struggling with substance abuse, typically twice a week and lasting four to six months under a licensed order.
  • Intensive Outpatient – This program is meant for inmates still in the Florida Department of Corrections who have been mandated for substance abuse and are clinically assessed for an outpatient program. The program lasts four to six months, and the treatment requires a minimum of 12 hours of counseling per week, including individual and group counseling.
  • Residential Therapeutic Community – Inmates are housed together within the same dormitory, separate from any non-program inmates. The live-in inmates work together while undergoing treatment and counseling. The program promotes structure, accountability, discipline, and consistency.

There are also Re-Entry Initiatives that are offered to returning citizens who have been recently released from incarceration:

  • Institutional Re-Entry Seminars – These seminars are meant to provide inmates with valuable information on how to find job opportunities, community resources, social services, housing, food, etc., to ensure a smooth transition back into the community.
  • Peer 2 Peer Groups – Voluntary dorms where inmates are housed together to focus on the same goal of change and growth. Each inmate has positions and responsibilities to fill to ensure accountability.
  • Administrative Management Units – Set for the unique needs of inmates who have had disruptive, predatory, and dangerous behaviors. It is meant to provide a structured environment to set conditions to enhance rehabilitation.
  • Mentoring Academy – A program meant to focus on role-modeling and experiential learning, where the participants learn how to build a community.

With all of these different programs, it seems like it should be extremely easy for recently released inmates to find the support they need to reenter society. However, what are the limitations? Tonya Bennett couldn’t even get into the non-profit rehabilitation unit she was looking towards after release. With so many individuals on the streets in Florida, it appears that there needs to be a better way to assist newly released inmates, as well as the many people who are homeless across the state.

Although Tonya Bennett seems content with her choice to reenter prison, it must be clear that that should not be the answer. There is a need for better mental health treatment for people in Florida, especially people who suffer from substance abuse or homelessness. If there is no help for these people, then they will see the only option left as to enter back into jail.

If you or a loved one has been arrested, contact an experienced criminal defense and DUI lawyer in Tallahassee, FL.

This article was written by Karissa Key

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