Editorial: Criminal justice system needs to be reformed in regard to peaceful protests.
The First Amendment right to peacefully protest is in jeopardy in Jacksonville.
This became apparent following reporting by Andrew Pantazi of the Times-Union about recent protests that revealed:
About 50 arrests for unlawful assembly or resisting arrest were so questionable that the Office of State Attorney refused to prosecute them. Sheriff Mike Williams insisted the arrests were appropriate.
Many of these same arrested people were forced to plead guilty or pay bail rather than be released on their own recognizance. In effect, they were treated as if they were presumed guilty.
And this comes before the Republican National Convention comes here in August during the 60th anniversary of Axe Handle Saturday in which peaceful protesters were attacked by white extremists.
One of the issues involves a vague Florida statute for unlawful assembly. It refers to three or more people committing a breach of the peace or other unlawful act. This is a second-degree misdemeanor.
There is a separate statute for riots. There is a clear distinction between rioting and peaceful protests. Police should stop a riot but they should not arbitrarily shut down a peaceful protest.
As reported by Pantazi, a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of four protesters calls for the following prohibitions for the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office:
Peaceful protests should not be shut down unless there is a clear danger to public safety and after police have tried other crowd control measures.
No more arrests for failing to comply with officers unless the orders are clear, specific and give protesters a chance to comply. Several people were arrested while they were trying to leave the protest area.
No more use of chemical agents unless it is a last resort to maintain the peace, and they should not be used indiscriminately at a crowd.
Those are common-sense recommendations that should already be in force.
But these were only the first examples of injustices. The second examples came when peaceful protesters were arrested.
Cookie cutter injustice
Some people arrested for unlawful assembly encountered an unfair system that treats accused people as if they are guilty and gives people with money advantages over the poor.
For misdemeanors, there should be a preference for releasing people on their own recognizance instead of putting them in jail, especially when the pandemic gives society a reason not to pack people in confined spaces.
Jailing people before trial causes a ripple of effects on the presumably innocent people and their families. They lose income and perhaps a job while incarcerated.
Jail ought to be saved for people who are a clear threat to society or a risk of fleeing before trial.
In fact, while more people have been released from jail in recent months during the pandemic, public safety has not been harmed.
A better option than jailing people before trial is providing them with services to help address the root causes that led them to crime. Florida's pretrial services have been slashed, reported the Florida Phoenix, while the state of New York provides pretrial services to almost 2,000 people per year. Those services include mental health, substance abuse and job assistance. Those services cost money but often cost less than jail.
In Florida, funding for rehabilitation within the state prison has been minimal.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of those arrested for unlawful assembly were required to post bond before being released. What's worse, Judge Michael Bateh doubled or tripled the standard amount in some cases without giving a reason for it, Pantazi reported.
In a transcript of first appearance court, Bateh offered most defendants a cookie-cutter deal: a guilty plea and five days in jail or pay a bond for misdemeanor charges.
This contrasts with Bateh's written statement to the Times-Union Editorial Board when he was running for office: "Most individuals who come before the county courts may be having their first experience with the criminal justice system. Individuals appearing before the courts want justices who are patient, who listen to both sides of the case and who will be conscientious in making their decisions and following the law that applies to their case.
"I would ensure that everyone will be treated fairly, respectfully and given an opportunity to adjudicate their case. ... Although litigants may not always agree with my ruling, they will understand how I got to my decision."
Bateh broke his promise to the voters. He failed to explain his decisions. By offering most first-time offenders either a guilty plea or a bond payment he showed poor listening skills. That showed no respect for the individuals but instead was an impersonal form of justice.
Let's be clear. The people we are referring to were not accused of violence. They were not rioters, they were peaceful protesters.
Major reforms are needed
This unjust bail system is not unique to Bateh, it is part of a bad tradition in Jacksonville in which releasing people on their own recognizance is given a low priority. This needs to change, which will require great effort given the longtime local precedent.
The citizens should expect that the criminal justice system will consider individuals accused of crimes on an individual basis. The system should be able to differentiate between those who are rioting from those who are expressing their First Amendment right to peacefully protest.
The sheriff, state attorney, public defender and chief judge need to join forces and give accused people their proper rights to be freed on their recognizance when justified.
In contrast, in the recent case of a person accused of ramming a police car, a high bond is justified.
But in a case of a first-time misdemeanor offender who is no flight risk, then being released without paying bail is entirely justified.
Reforms to the system should be obvious but history shows that the inertia of a precedent, even a bad one, can be a powerful barrier against reform.
Jacksonville has a progressive group of leaders. For instance, they have aggressively increased the use of civil citations for juveniles through a collaborative approach.
If no action is taken, then it would be appropriate for City Council to hold hearings and press for reforms.
It's time for changes. Our local criminal justice leaders are capable of making them.
Read more from the original source:
First Amendment right to protest is in jeopardy in Jacksonville - The Florida Times-Union
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