Should Lower Bail Amounts from COVID be Permanent?

March 10, 2022 Criminal Defense

Should Lower Bail Amounts from COVID be Permanent? Officials Debate Over New Stats Showing Crime Rates Didn’t Rise

One of the many results from the COVID-19 pandemic was the push to lower the jail population. In Palm Beach County, one of the ways they tried to accomplish this was to lower the cost of bail for defendants. While there was an initial concern for public safety since lowering the cost of bail would result in more defendants being released from jail, a new study shows that the rate of recidivism or defendants not showing up for court actually declined during the time frame of lower bail costs.

With the new study from Florida State University (FSU), the question arises – what should bail be set at? Further, is it a viable option to have a lower cost of bail if it doesn’t result in endangering the public? Or will the trend turn back towards high amounts of recidivism? A look at the study completed by FSU, along with the outcomes of the pandemic in the prison system and the responses from critics will be reviewed.

What was the Study?

A study was completed by the Criminology and Criminal Justice section of FSU to review the affects COVID-19 had on the culture of Florida prisons. The study was conducted through the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) and was provided a $30,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

The researchers include FSU Professor Jennifer Copp, along with other professors. The study focused on the bookings into the Palm Beach County jail system. The time period covered was from October 1st, 2017, to April 10th, 2020, and compared the bookings during that time to the bookings from April 11th, 2020 to June 20th, 2021. The goal of the study was to determine whether the lower bail amounts during the pandemic should continue if they did not harm pose public safety risks in Palm Beach County.

During the height of the pandemic, the Chief Judge at the time, Krista Marx, had issued an order to reduce the cost of bail from $3,000 to $1,000 for nonviolent third-degree felonies. There were additional counties in Florida that followed the same course of action. Then, as COVID-19 cases declined in July of 2021, the order for lower bail costs were repealed.

The study conducted found the following results from those who were charged with more than one third-degree felony:

  • Average bail dropped from $8,322 to $3,326
  • The failure for defendants to appear in court dropped from 3% to 1%
  • The rate of re-arrests for those who were out on bail awaiting trial dropped from 14% to 9%

A statement from the report says, “Our findings demonstrate that in addition to lowering bonds and facilitating/expediting the release of defendants pretrial, the Administrative Order had no adverse effects on the level of pretrial failure in the county, including new criminal activity and failure to appeal. The declines in new criminal activity and failure to appear were statistically significant.”

With the data from the FSU study, many hope it becomes the force to push lawmakers to lower the cost of bail permanently. However, the study has not come without backlash from law enforcement and bail agents alike.

COVID-19 Impact on Prison

In addition to the cost of bail dropping from $3,000 to $1,000, there were also other parts of the jail system affected by COVID-19. The average amount of time sitting in jail reduced by 5 hours for defendants who were awaiting to see a judge. This makes sense considering the lower bail costs. Before the lower costs during the height of COVID-19, defendants typically sat in a jail cell for nearly an entire day. After the bail was set to $1,000, this wait time dropped by 5 hours.

Carey Haughwout, a public defender in Palm Beach County, pressed that there was an issue with fairness and equality. “Two people charged with the same exact crime: One stays in jail because that person cannot afford to pay $3,000. The other person gets out because that person has more money. That is wrong. And people of color are disproportionally affected,” was Haughwout’s statement regarding the issue.

What are the Critics Saying?

For people like Haughwout, she believes that the study should be seriously considered when it comes to determining the cost of bail in Palm Beach County. Further, she noted that in Broward County, defendants who have been charged with any third-degree felony are able to be released without any bail.

However, not everyone has the same point of view as Haughwout. Some critics feel as if there are flaws in the study because it compares pre-pandemic data to data during the pandemic. John Viola, the president of the Palm Beach County Bail Agents Association commented on the study, “You just can’t do that because things were so different during the height of the pandemic. They compared apples to oranges.”

In addition, Viola made a note that third-degree felonies are still very serious offenses, which can result in up to 5 years in prison. There would be more of a financial benefit for bail agents from the high bond prices, as more people might not need to see an agent with the bail set at the lower $1,000 cost.

FSU Professor Jennifer Copp, who was co-author of the report, acknowledged what some critics were saying about the report failing to include a list of the offenses that were eligible for the lower $1,000 bail cost. Copp addressed County Commissioner Dave Kerner, who sits on the Criminal Just Commission, that one of the offenses eligible for the lower bail cost was child abuse by neglect, which Kerner argued should have never happened.

Moving Forward – Criminal Justice Reform

Now, the question remains of how to move forward. Copp is currently working with a subcommittee of the CJC to compile a complete list of the offenses eligible for the lower bail cost. Once completed, a task force will review the list and recommend to the CJC whether the lower bail amounts should be restored, stay the same, or if certain offenses should be removed—such as the child neglect offense.

As for the county, the Palm Beach Police Chief Association has released a statement that they are unified in their opposition for the reduced bail amounts. They believe there have been increases in offenses such as organized retail theft, auto theft, and other third-degree felonies. They fear that permanently lowering the bail cost would result in additional felony charges increasing throughout Palm Beach County.

Only time will tell to see how the county plans to resolve the issue of bail, and see whether or not the recidivism continues, or if it was just a direct result of the pandemic.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

If you or a loved one have been accused of a crime, your top priority should be reaching out to an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area. Receiving top notch legal advice can make all  the difference in any case. Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have represented clients all over the state of Florida in all types of criminal cases. They understand what it takes to defend your case and can help with all the ins and out of the legal process. Call (850) 681-7777 and receive a free consultation today.

Written by Karissa Key

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