For years, advocates of criminal justice reform have argued that America's cash bail system is broken. Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union say it's unfair that wealthy defendants can pay their way out of jail before a criminal trial while the poor are often locked up for months or years because they can't afford to post bond — a predicament that causes many to lose their jobs and housing along the way.
In Miami-Dade, the bail bond industry is still very much a moneymaking business. State records show nearly 400 bail bondsmen are licensed to operate throughout the county, and the average bond amount for a criminal defendant is $2,500, according to a 2018 ACLU report. But all of that could change next year if voters oust longtime Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle this November. Rundle's challenger, former prosecutor Melba Pearson, told New Times in a recent interview that if she's elected, she plans to end the use of cash bail.
"Bail reform is one of the things that can keep our communities intact," Pearson said.
It's no surprise local bail bond companies are already lining up to support Rundle's reelection bid. According to campaign finance records filed with the state elections division, ten contributors from the industry have donated a total of $3,200 to Rundle's campaign so far. The donations — all made November 12, the date of a Rundle fundraiser — include the following:
- $250 from Alicea Bail Bonds
- $250 from A1 Magic Bail Bonds/Fianzas
- $300 from bail bondsman Castleberry Harrell
- $500 from Dondee Bail Bonds
- $200 from Eagle Bail Bonds
- $250 from Fireline Bail Bonds
- $250 from Midtown Bail Bonds
- $200 from Sunshine State Bail Bonds
- $500 from TGK Bail Bonds
- $500 from Xpress Bail Bonds
Two additional donations — $500 cash from Fast 24-7 Bail Bonds and a $250 check from Huggins 24 Hour Bail Bonds — were returned by the campaign in November. The state records show contributions through the end of 2019. (Pearson noted the campaign donations in an op-ed for Florida Politics last week.)
In a statement sent to New Times, Rundle's campaign said she supports other kinds of pretrial release for nonviolent offenders.
"The state attorney has supported and led on responsible reforms to our criminal-justice system, including steps to achieve greater fairness to the bond process," the statement reads. "These reforms are focused on non-violent offenders who should be offered reasonable efforts to abide by the judicial system through non-bond mechanisms."
To date, Rundle has raised nearly $290,000 in support of her reelection bid. Although the $3,200 from the bail industry represents only a fraction of that total, it's symbolic of the industry's dependence on local prosecutors, who have the latitude in most cases to request that a judge set a bond amount.
Across the nation, bond companies have fought activists' best attempts at bail reform. The powerful American Bail Coalition has lobbied state lawmakers "to protect the constitutional right to bail" and teamed up with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council to craft bills that would insulate the industry. Duane Chapman, better known as Dog the Bounty Hunter, has famously opposed the reform movement and pledged to use his celebrity to keep the cash bail system intact. In recent high-stakes elections in New York City and Dallas, bond companies contributed to prosecutorial candidates who were thought likely to maintain the status quo. (As of January 1, the State of New York has largely eliminated the use of cash bail.)
In Miami-Dade, Rundle's campaign has criticized Pearson for what it characterized as a lack of specifics about her plan to end cash bail.
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"Ms. Pearson should offer more specifics to her call for reforms, including her position that would allow violent criminals and others who have committed crimes to be let out on their own word. This could pose great harm to our community," the campaign wrote in a statement to New Times.
Pearson said she supports pretrial release for mostly nonviolent and misdemeanor offenders.
"Obviously, if you have a terrible record, we'd need to look at that and look at the risk to the community," she told New Times recently. "It's something you have to keep in the equation. But people who are not a risk to the community will be released on their own recognizance, and once they're released, they can attend treatment, they can attend theft courts, they can put money in a trust account for restitution. There are different variations on that."
So far, no financial reports have been filed for Pearson's campaign or the political committee supporting her, Real Reform for Miami-Dade.