While the rest of the country is taking steps to avoid jailing people for low-level crimes that can trap poor defendants in a cycle of poverty and incarceration, law enforcement in Miami Beach is taking the opposite stance.
According to a report from the Miami Herald, Miami Beach hired its own prosecutor to pursue defendants who have violated city laws. The hiring came after city officials learned that the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office was consistently dropping cases for low-level offenses like drinking in public and entering a park after hours.
Although local residents often complain about the rampant public drunkenness that takes place during spring break and other times of the year that see increased tourism, a closer look at the cases charged by the new prosecutor reveals that the program is primarily targeting homeless people for drinking in public and other types of nuisance crimes.
Public records show that between mid-January and mid-August 2018, at least two-thirds of the 212 cases that were prosecuted involved a homeless defendant. Only 12 arrests involved defendants who were tourists. The majority of the prosecutions were for drinking in public, though some were for urinating in public and camping in a restricted area, such as a park or the beach after hours.
Last year, the number of arrests for ordinance violations decreased, but the number of convictions substantially increased. Over 40% of these cases resulted with the defendant going to jail. A large portion of the cases also handed down “stay away orders”, which prevent the defendant from returning to the location they were arrested for a specified period of time.
Activists and lawyers who work closely with the homeless population are alarmed by the number of homeless people being prosecuted for nuisance crimes. Valerie Navarrete serves on Miami Beach’s Committee on the Homeless, and she had the following to say, “I thought my tax dollars were going to target actual crime. If you’re talking about 60 to 80 percent being homeless, that’s targeting.”
Carey Haughwout, the president of the Florida Public Defenders Association, raised similar concerns, saying, “There is a growing consensus that these types of prosecutions that really are prosecutions based on poverty are not appropriate. We’re just housing them in the jail instead of housing them somewhere else.”
Miami Beach officials maintain that the city’s police department isn’t targeting the homeless or failing to charge tourists. The city attorney’s office says that the city prosecutor oversees the prosecution of all cases that feature criminal municipal ordinance violations. If there is an additional state charge with the municipal ordinance violation, the state attorney’s office will prosecute the case.
In a statement, the city said, “An important component in maintaining a high quality of life throughout the City involves the enforcement of the laws under which all citizens and guests must live and abide. And while no such leniency is shown for felony or most misdemeanor offenses, the officers of the Miami Beach Police Department typically provide a warning to those individuals who violate the City’s municipal criminal ordinances prior to effectuating an arrest.”
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