By Marianela Toledo and Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog
MIAMI — Reacting to the news that Miami-Dade County wants to use accused criminals for manual labor in return for paying off debts, lawyers across the state say such a program could be rule unconstitutional.
The proposed ordinance aims to save taxpayer dollars by offering “pretrial detainees” the option of cleaning roads, bridges and doing maintenance work if they cannot afford bail — all before they are convicted by a court of law.
“If we take the presumption of innocence seriously — that people should be deemed innocent until proven guilty — it makes no sense to subject pre-trial and pre-adjudication detainees to involuntary servitude,” said Noah Weisbord, law professor at Florida International University College of Law. “They must have a choice.”
He points to the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution for direction, which outlaws involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
County Commissioner Sally Heymann, who introduced the resolution, said accused criminals could opt for the labor program if they are unable to afford bail.
“People who owe us money— tied to the courts and the criminal justice system — and can’t pay because they don’t have jobs or extra income and have bills to pay, this is what we will use to leverage it,” she told Florida Watchdog. “If someone owes us $100 we can say: ‘this weekend you have to work 10 hours over at the beach cleaning up through the mangroves’.”
Heymann said such is allowed by a previous Florida statute, which empowered local officials to start similar programs in Brevard, Orange, Pasco and Pinellas counties.
But that hasn’t stopped critics from attacking the program on the basis of constitutional law.
“There is no sense of proportion in subjecting people to involuntary servitude who are incarcerated for traffic misdemeanors and can’t meet their financial obligation under a bail-bond offense,” Weisbord told Florida Watchdog.
Bruce Jacob, a former Florida assistant attorney general now teaching constitutional law at the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, said the Constitution and jurisprudence should invalidate these type of prison labor programs.
“These people, because they’re poor and can’t afford their bail, they’re forced to work. Like in other cases, this would violate the Equal Protection Clause.,” said Jacob.
He points to the case of Tate v. Short, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot impose a fine and arbitrarily convert it into a sentence because the defendant cannot pay.
“It’s just a mirage, it’s not really a choice. If you don’t work, you’re locked up. The poor are compelled to do labor.
“What kind of choice is that? Being locked up or working,” said Jacob. “Obviously, it’s an unconstitutional statue.”
Heymann defended the statute by saying it is authorized by the state of Florida, giving county commissioners the authority to enact this program once it is passed.
Gov. Rick Scott, a supporter of such programs, campaigned on the idea of using “inmate labor to grow prison food,” potentially saving the state up to a billion dollars a year. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2010, the state of Florida paid $2.4 billion to imprison more than 102,000 people.
An independent analysis by Florida Tax Watch, a nonprofit fiscal watchdog based in Tallahassee, found that 70 percent of those prisoners are jailed for having committed nonviolent crimes, and could also fall under the work provisions if the ordinance is passed in Miami-Dade County.
“The total cost to taxpayers for the incarceration of the 40,900 probation violators without a new felony arrest admitted since 2001 exceeds $1.3 billion,” wrote Tax Watch in their report.
Contact Marianela Toledo at [email protected].
— Edited by Kelly Carson, [email protected]