Crime is down in Northeast Florida. So is the number of arrests. But the Duval County Jail is bursting at the seams, its population higher than at any point in its history — about 45 percent above capacity. According to a new report by two University of North Florida criminologists, the reason for the disparity boils down to one thing: “prosecutorial style.”
“While State Attorney Angela Corey lives up to every prosecutor’s mantra to be ‘tough on crime,’ ” the report asks, “is there a point where this becomes counter-productive?”
In the study, “No Peace Dividend for Duval?” Dr. Michael Hallett, chairman of UNF’s Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice, and Dr. Dan Pontzer, an assistant professor in that department, examine what they call Jacksonville’s “punitive civic infrastructure.” The study points out that Jacksonville is alone among large Florida cities in seeing a surging jail population at a time of declining crime rates, and it raises serious questions about whether this mass incarceration actually “endangers and compromises” city safety efforts. Perhaps most surprisingly, the report expresses concerns about the apparent rise of “a political machine” in local criminal justice circles, in which formerly adversarial offices like that of the state attorney and public defender are “compromised” by their uncomfortably close political ties. (See Folio Weekly’s previous stories on this subject at http://bit.ly/wLLHnV and http://bit.ly/zhVkDP)
The report, which Hallett provided to Folio Weekly late last month, begins with an economic observation: that cities such as Orlando, Tampa and Miami have been able to save money by decreasing jail populations in accordance with declining national, state and local crime rates. In Duval County, however, while annual arrest rates have dropped from roughly 50,000 to 37,500 over the past five years (a decrease of 25 percent), the local jail population rose from 3,421 to 3,990 — an increase of about 16 percent. According to the report, that’s because local incarceration rates are driven not by crime, but by political aims.
“Is the political pressure to get tough on crime so powerful in Jacksonville that it has become the only viable ‘brand’ of criminal justice?” the report asks. “Even worse, is it possible that a political machine has emerged around the system with the power to sustain itself indefinitely, regardless of the costs to the community?”
For her part, Corey says no.
“We don’t apologize for prosecuting violent or repeat offenders,” she says. In a telephone interview, Corey said she’s proud of her record as a zealous prosecutor in the three-county Fourth Judicial District (Clay, Duval and Nassau counties). She insists she isn’t one to toot her own horn — “I don’t hold a whole lot of press conferences. I just want to be left alone and do my job” — but points to a conviction rate of 91.6 percent in fiscal year 2010-’11. By comparison, figures provided by Corey’s office show former State Attorney Harry Shorstein’s conviction rates were mostly in percentages of low to mid-70s.
But Hallett observes that it is exactly Corey’s hard-nosed approach that’s causing the costly and unnecessary surge in jail population. Under Corey, the local circuit has seen an increase in criminal complaint filing rates, conviction rates and cases taken to trial. The local filing rate has risen from 52 percent in 2005 to 66 percent in 2010, and the number of charges filed increased from 8,888 to 9,498. That increase was not related to murder, robbery or sex offenses. Rather, the largest overall increases stemmed from an increase in charges for burglary and theft/fraud/forgery, which jumped by 35 and 63 percent, respectively. Today, Jacksonville has the highest incarceration rate in the state.
Hallett and Corey quibble over some of the report’s statistics. Though both use data from the Office of State Court Administrators, they draw different conclusions. Hallett believes the statistics show Corey’s policies are responsible for packing the jail; Corey says they show she is doing a good job of clearing the streets of criminals. (The pair met recently at her office to discuss the report, and both Corey and Public Defender Matt Shirk have agreed to participate in a University of North Florida forum to discuss it this spring.)
“We are filing more cases because we have a better relationship with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and are making better cases,” argues Corey, who is seeking re-election this fall. In 2010-’11, Corey’s office took 270 cases to jury trial, resulting in 27 acquittals or dismissals, 25 pleas and 218 convictions.
Corey says she isn’t responsible for the entire jail population, and notes that the increase reflects such things as fathers arrested for not paying child support, and federal prisoners and state inmates brought in to testify for other trials. Her office does refuse to consolidate cases when a defendant has been charged with a number of crimes, but she says they carefully analyze cases to determine which to prosecute. She also contends her office has been “extremely smart on crime,” including changing the way worthless check charges are handled in an effort to obtain restitution for victims without holding the check writers in jail. One area of the report that has been politically difficult for Corey’s office is the trend of youth incarceration. As Folio Weekly has previously reported, the number of youths charged as adults dramatically increased since her election (http://bit.ly/zaBxKK). One of Corey’s highest profile and most controversial prosecutions is that of Cristain Fernandez, who was just 12 when he was charged with first-degree murder — the youngest person ever charged with the crime in Jacksonville. As Hallett’s report observes, the Fernandez case illustrates the city’s dubious claim to fame: “Florida leads the nation in prosecuting children as adults — and Jacksonville leads Florida — making Jacksonville the nation’s capital for prosecuting children as adults.”
Most county inmates are held in the Duval County Pretrial Detention Center, a 12-story beige structure in downtown Jacksonville, behind the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. Built in 1991, the jail was designed to hold 2,189. It now holds close to 4,000, about 1,800 over capacity.
While Hallett presents a theory about why the jail is over capacity, inmates and relatives of those behind bars say the reality is particularly grim. According to advocates for the incarcerated, the county jail is home to inhumane conditions — overcrowding, physical and sexual assaults, and some inmates being forced to sleep on mats because there aren’t enough beds.
“The crowded situation is really outrageous,” says Linda Drayson, founder and president of Hurting Families with Children In Crime Inc. “The people sleep on mats for days and weeks. It’s inhumane; you don’t have to sleep on the floor even in the homeless shelter.”
Corey says she’s not troubled by inmates sleeping on mats, noting their conditions are better than those of some U.S. service men and women. Overcrowding isn’t just uncomfortable, however. As any student of corrections knows, crowding foments violence. A young man talking last year to juveniles at a diversion program described sexual acts between inmates, including a 13-year-old boy being forced to perform oral sex on other inmates, and one being sodomized by a broom handle (http://bit.ly/yi1GoO). And the crush of incoming inmates has turned first-appearance court into a twice-daily cattle call, including many defendants who are homeless or mentally ill. Al Diaz, chief of health services for the jail, recently told Folio Weekly, “A large portion of the inmate population is particularly affected by the number of mental health conditions, ranging from personality disorders to minor depression to severe psychosis.” The jail handles about 153 inmates every month with serious to severe mental health issues. Jail officials spent $395,000 in 2011 just on medication for the mentally ill.
Sheriff John Rutherford, who has taken issue with Hallett’s previous work on crime patterns (particularly one report that challenged Rutherford’s claim that Jacksonville has shed its “murder capital” title), refused to either read or discuss the new report. “I have seen Professor Hallett’s work with statistics before,” he told Folio Weekly through a spokesperson. “I will not be reading any of his publications.”
The sheriff’s own data paints a different picture. According to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, inmate admissions stood at 39,819 in 2010, down from 46,488 in 2009. Asked to respond to Rutherford, Hallett wrote in an email, “We are aware that the Sheriff wants to be the only source of information about crime in Jacksonville. All data utilized in this research come directly from FDLE, Florida Department of Corrections, and the Florida State Court Administrator’s Office. According to FDLE, Jacksonville arrests are down approximately 30 percent since 2005. But the Duval County Jail is more crowded than it has ever been.”
For the past several years, city budget-tightening has forced all agencies to scale back operations. Public safety has not been immune, as evidenced by the recently approved pay cuts doled out to police officers. But budget talks have mostly avoided the topic of reducing the local jail population. Hallett’s study may change that.
The city spent more than a third of its total budget in 2010 to fund the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office — some $350 million a year — and 25 percent of that went to finance jail operations. Hallett’s study makes several recommendations for reducing the jail population, including lowering bonds, so those arrested on nonviolent or misdemeanor charges can remain free until their cases are resolved. “There are too many nonviolent and innocent people in the jail,” says Linda Drayson. “It’s all about the dollar.”
In 2010, the average length of stay for an inmate was 34 days, costing the county an estimated $2,044. It costs $60.13 a day to keep an inmate in jail, or $21,947 a year, compared with $53.64 a day in the state prison system, or $19,489 a year.
But cost is just one concern of many. Cleve Warren, co-chair of the Reclaiming Young Black Males for Jacksonville’s Future initiative, observes, “Prosecution is no synonym for justice. We can only hope to whom we entrust this discretion come with the capacity to discern justice from injustice, fairness from unfairness and reasonable from unreasonable.”
The University of North Florida hosts a forum on issues relating to the Duval County Jail on Monday, April 2 at UNF’s University Center from 7-8:30 p.m. Participants include Angela Corey, Matt Shirk, attorney Bill Sheppard, Michael Hallett and Alton Yates.