ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - The Orlando prosecutor who got into a legal fight with the governor for her blanket refusal to seek the death penalty now says her office will no longer request monetary bail bonds for defendants accused of low-level crimes.
Instead, prosecutors in Orange and Osceola counties, under the jurisdiction of State Attorney Aramis Ayala, will recommend releasing defendants on their own recognizance for crimes involving possession of small amounts of cannabis, driving without a license, panhandling, disorderly conduct or loitering.
"When you know better, you do better," said Ayala. "Non violent misdemeanor, they're not able to post $250-$500 bond, so they have to languish in jail."
Ayala said the system has discriminated against defendants who end up jailed until trial, solely because they can't afford to pay bail. Sometimes those people even lose their jobs, she said.
Federal appellate courts and the U.S. Justice Department under President Barack Obama have come to similar conclusions, saying that jailing people just because they can't afford to pay a fine or fee, without considering an alternative, is an unconstitutional denial of equal protection and due process rights.
The new policy, which starts June 1, won't be applied to defendants charged with domestic violence, stalking, firearms and dangerous felonies, Ayala said.
"Driving while license suspended, small amounts of marijuana, and you have to be an Orange or Osceola resident," Ayala said.
It also includes panhandling, loitering and disorderly intoxication.We asked if this allows people to commit crimes without suffering the consequences.
"It will not impact the sentencing. It will impact how poor people are treated pre-trial."
Also, extra scrutiny will be given to defendants with a history of failing to appear in court, past violations of release or a previous conviction involving a violent crime.
"I think it's wonderful, it's long overdue," said defense attorney Whitney Boan. "They're holding them in jail, without the ability to post bond. They're basically trying to coerce them into making a plea."
As for money from that bail, Ayala said it's not going to be a shortage for the tax payer, but will actually save money. She said it costs 70 dollars a day to house an inmate.
"The penalty is supposed to be conviction, so we have been penalizing poverty long before conviction."
Ayala's declaration last year that she would no longer seek the death penalty triggered a fight with Gov. Rick Scott, who took away more than two dozen cases from her office.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled last August that Scott had the authority to reassign the first-degree murder cases, since Ayala had enacted a blanket policy. Ayala agreed to seek the death penalty in some cases, and appointed a panel to guide decisions on capital punishment.