ACLU challenges how courts in Manatee and Sarasota counties set bail

Some people are sitting in jail with bail amounts they just cannot pay, so the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida is fighting to get those bail amounts lowered.

The ACLU says some inmates who are stuck behind bars are not considered a risk to the community.

The organization filed 11 petitions this week on behalf of 11 inmates in Sarasota and Manatee counties who say they cannot afford their bail amounts.

"I think we have seen a routine practice in Sarasota and Manatee in which courts are imposing a monetary bail without much consideration of whether its affordable and thus will result in detention, a person being deprived of their liberty," said Benjamin Stevenson, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida.

The 11 petitions claim a due process clause from the 14th amendment is not being met. That clause requires a state to prove someone’s detention is clearly necessary.

"These cases are less about what any particular bail should be, but about the process by which bail is determined," said Stevenson.

He says one of the 11 clients was arrested for cocaine possession and his bail amount was set at $1,500.

"He can’t afford it, and maybe $1,500 is the magic number that will ensure that he shows up to court, but $1,500 is for sure the number he can’t afford, and it’s our position that before they detain somebody, they’ve got to have a clear need, they have to show that nothing else or nothing less than $1,500 will suffice," Stevenson said.

The petitions reference the sheriffs in Manatee and Sarasota counties, saying they participate in the systemic practice of imposing bail amounts that people can’t afford.

In a statement, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office said in part: "The respective sheriffs in Florida follow the bail as set by the presiding judge. The bail procedures and amounts are set by the circuit court. Sheriffs do not set or control the bond amounts."

A spokesperson for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office gave FOX 13 a similar statement over the phone.

Following the ACLU’s action, the court ordered the Florida Attorney General’s office to answer the petitions individually by December 6.