Escambia County has one of the highest incarceration rates in the state — around 80% higher than the state average — according to a new report from the ACLU of Florida.
Some 1,795 people were detained in the county’s correctional system as of July 31. A third of those — about 598 inmates — are locked up awaiting trial and are eligible for release, but many remain in jail because they’re too poor to afford high bail costs, the report found.
That’s led to overcrowding and forced taxpayers to bear housing, feeding, and medical costs for those inmates. Escambia County taxpayers spend around $46.5 million each year on incarceration.
“Escambia County’s over-incarceration problem is a burden on taxpayers, is making the community less safe, and is ruining people’s lives,” stated ACLU of Florida staff attorney Benjamin Stevenson, who authored the report. “Many of the people the county is detaining are in jail simply because they cannot afford cash bail, meaning we have one system of justice for those who can afford to pay to get out jail, and one for those who can’t. These are people who are presumed innocent and have not actually been convicted of a crime.”
The cash bail system as it exists disproportionately impacts poorer defendants, according to the report. Even if an inmate is ultimately not convicted of a crime, a short stay in jail could cause a person to lose their job or miss a car payment, making it even harder for them to afford bail or other fees associated with the criminal justice system.
The ACLU also released a video featuring Escambia County commissioners Jeff Bergosh and Lumon May, as well as circuit court judge Thomas Dannheisser.
“Keeping them incarcerated becomes a greater burden or liability on the backs of the taxpayers,” May said. “And so if we’re paying 60 to 70 dollars a day to incarcerate someone, and their bail could only be $100, I don’t think that’s good stewardship.”
The report comes as Escambia officials weigh bids for the construction of a new $130 million jail building to replace the former central booking and detention facility, which was damaged beyond repair in a 2014 gas explosion. The loss has severely limited the county’s jail capacity; more than 1,000 inmates are currently housed in the county’s existing 1980s-era main jail, which was designed to house just 779 people. The county’s corrections director reported last month that more than 150 inmates are currently sleeping on the floor at the jail.
The overcrowding has also forced county officials to spend nearly a half million dollars annually to house more than 200 inmates at the Walton County Jail, 70 miles east of Pensacola.
“My position has somewhat been tempered now that I’ve seen the jail firsthand, more importantly now that I’ve seen the budget,” Bergosh said. “I mean, this is just so expensive. It’s killing the taxpayers.”
The report includes 14 recommendations which the ACLU says would help solve the problem of overcrowding without compromising public safety, including expanding and improving pretrial supervision practices and tailoring monetary bail to ensure defendants appear at trial rather than remain detained. The report also recommends various other reforms to “streamline” the system, including recommending that law enforcement issue notices to appear rather than make arrests for some misdemeanor offenses.
Representatives from the ACLU of Florida will present the report’s analysis and recommendations at the Escambia County Commission’s meeting on Thursday.
Read the ACLU report in full: