HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – The Community Bail Fund started in the Orlando area is expanding along the I-4 corridor into Tampa Bay.
Both Hillsborough County’s top prosecutor Andrew Warren and Public Defender Julianne Holt told 8 On Your Side there are defendants sitting in jail waiting for their day in court simply because they can’t afford to pay their bail or bond.
“During this pandemic time when we really aren’t able to move cases forward in a really meaningful way, it really made me sensitive to just how economically challenged my clients are,” Holt said.
Matt Morgan from the Morgan & Morgan Law firm launched the Community Bail Fund in February with the help of officials from the 9th Judicial Circuit of Orange and Osceola Counties. Since then, he said they have helped more than 150 people post bail.
“We’ve always been interested in the criminal justice reform space and seeing the need of the community in Tampa was all too clear to us,” Morgan said, “so this partnership is fantastic in that its going to give people who really should not be incarcerated the means to get out.”
The Community Bail Fund is focused on helping low-level, non violent offenders, charged with crimes like drug possession and traffic violations.
“I’m so encouraged to see top criminal justice leaders along the I-4 corridor stand up and act to address the disproportional impact the cash bail system has on people of color and low-income individuals,” Morgan said. “It’s long past time we end the poverty penalty on those sitting in jail for nonviolent offenses, especially as we face a terrible pandemic that has ravaged our jails.”
An inmate’s criminal history would be reviewed before being selected for financial help to post bail, Holt said.
“The pandemic is not only creating health risks for people who are in jail because we’re not able to try cases,” Warren said. “You have people who may be sitting in jail for longer than they would be if they were convicted of a crime.”
Morgan told 8 On Your Side the coronavirus pandemic “expedited” the need to expand the fund. So far, he said his family has matched about $150,000 raised in the community.
8 On Your Side asked Holt whether the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has taken the proper precautions tp protect inmates during the pandemic.
“My understanding and everything we’ve heard so far from all of our clients is that the detention centers are doing a tremendous job in really keeping individuals safe,” she said. “That doesn’t in any way do away with the fear and anxiety that everyone is living with right now.”
Holt said the number one concern from inmates is having limited access to the courtroom.
Both the State Attorney’s Office and HCSO have said they are working to keep the jail population low during the pandemic.
Mike Perotti, the current legal counsel for HCSO, is the Republican challenger running against the Democrat Warren in November’s election.
“I think promoting far more flexibility in the bail process and considering alternatives to confinement are the most necessary and appropriate courses of action,” he said in an email to 8 On Your Side. “But obviously such changes take consensus and collaboration from all sides of the equation.”
Perotti suggested that the State Attorney and Public Defender should work with the judiciary and lawmakers to address bail reform.