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Change in Florida Jail Policy Leads to Increased Homelessness

Change in Florida Jail Policy Leads to Increased Homelessness

by David M. Reutter

For those without resources or help from family or friends, being released from jail has always been difficult. A change in policy in Broward County, Florida is leaving even those who have someplace to go stranded and in some cases homeless.

The Broward County Jail releases, on average, 150 people each day at all hours, including late at night. Until recently, people released from the jail could receive a free bus ticket, enabling them to leave the county. In fact, the program helped 140 homeless men and women relocate in 2013.

But policy changes by the Broward County Commission now require six months of residency before released prisoners qualify for a free bus ticket. To make it even more difficult for people leaving the jail, the City of Fort Lauderdale has discontinued funding its $25,000 busing program.

As a result of these policy changes, the county and city are contributing to the homeless population – one released prisoner after another. Those who leave the jail with no money and no friends or relatives, and no transportation options, have little choice but to wander the streets.

The changes have trapped people like Robert Jordan. In 2011, Jordan, 61, was living in a van and working for a carnival. He was assigned by his boss to pick up another carney and drive to the West Coast. Instead, Jordan was arrested and spent 15 months in state prison on a drug conviction. The conviction was eventually overturned and, to avoid a new trial, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was released on time served in Broward County.

“I don’t want to be homeless here,” Jordan said. “If someone has a real need, I think someone should help them out. I am just walking the streets now. They even threw away my ID. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Prisoners released by the Florida Department of Corrections receive $50, but the same does not hold true for those freed from county jails. Under the new policy, Jordan, a Mississippi native, is stranded in Fort Lauderdale. And he is not alone.

There is “more than anecdotal evidence, from police, from homeless outreach folks, that this is reality,” said Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, although no one really knows how many people released from the Broward County Jail end up homeless. “They have no resources, and they basically hang out in Fort Lauderdale.”

The revolving door between jail and the street “is a huge issue, which we have been talking about for years,” Seiler added. “We have 31 cities in Broward County, and people get arrested all over. But when they get released and have nowhere to go, they stay in Fort Lauderdale. So we end up with the homeless population from around the county. That’s not right, not the way it should be.”

“What are we expecting?” asked Brow­ard County Commissioner Dale Holness. “These folks continue to be in a situation where they might become a criminal. And they have a negative impact on the businesses downtown. They complain. It’s a sad state we’re in.”

Sarah Curtis, who oversees the $50,000 homeless bus budget as a manager with the county’s division of housing options, has little empathy. “We’re not Traveler’s Aid,” she said. “People call and say, ‘I was here with the carnival and I want to go home.’ But that’s not the intent [of the program].”

By contrast, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office screens every prisoner before release. If the prisoner reports being homeless, they are given a bus pass to a shelter or driven to one by a deputy when released at night.

“The primary reason we help them is not only to reduce the rate of recidivism, but for humanitarian reasons: we want them to succeed,” said Articia Futch, a program manager for the Sheriff’s Office.

The City of Sarasota has also instituted a bus program to assist homeless people in relocating, allocating $1,000 for one-way tickets. However, critics say only a fraction of the city’s homeless meet the criteria for a ticket, and some contend city officials are merely trying to sweep away homeless people without confronting more entrenched social problems.

“It just displaces them because you feel more comfortable,” complained local resident Catherine Miller.

“We don’t just want to send people away,” countered Calvin Collins, a member of Sarasota’s Homeless Outreach Team. Rather, he said, helping the homeless was the motivation behind the creation of the bus program. “We want to prepare people to go to their community and thrive and become a good citizen.”

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel has proposed spending $2.5 million to turn a closed stockade into a Community Programs Campus, which would allow low-risk and work release prisoners to have access to computers, counseling and job training. “We want to make sure we’re not setting people up for failure,” said David Scharf, Director of Community Programs for the Sheriff’s Office. “That’s the plan, to re-engage these folks properly.”

Re-arrest and re-incarceration are “not only bad for that person, but it costs taxpayers a tremendous amount of money,” Scharf noted. The county spends an average of $118 per day to house each jail prisoner.

Ironically, as Broward County officials make it more difficult for released prisoners to leave town, resulting in increased homelessness, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, at its annual conference in Orlando in October 2014, bestowed a civil rights award on the Broward County Sheriff’s Homeless Outreach Initiative – a program started by Israel that converts deputies from adversaries of the homeless to advocates.

“Homelessness is not a crime,” Sheriff Israel stated in a promotional video. “Arresting the homeless, in many situations, is not a solution.”

The Homeless Outreach Initiative reportedly achieved a 13% reduction in arrests since its inception in 2013; compared to the year before, the sheriff’s office reported 212 fewer arrests for misdemeanor offenses such as trespassing, loitering, solicitation or sleeping in the open, which often involve people who are homeless.

“What the sheriff’s department is doing is wonderful,” said Shane Gunderson, who runs client services for the Broward County Public Defender’s Office. “They even have someone in the jail lobby to give social service referrals and free bus passes.”

Just not free bus passes to every released prisoner who needs one – a policy the Broward County Commission should reconsider.




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