Just weeks ago Tonya Bennett, after spending more than a year in jail on an arson charge, was pleading with Circuit Judge Terence Perkins to let her out and plead to 10 years of probation. “I don’t want to go to prison,” Bennett, 53, told the judge plaintively. I’m a changed person. And I thank the jailhouse for that. The 14 months I’ve been here, I’ve seen lots of people come and go here and come back here, and I don’t want to be the one that comes back here.”
On Monday, Bennett was back before the judge. She was doing something Perkins–or any judge–hardly ever hears. She was asking him to revoke her probation and send her to state prison.
She’d not committed a new crime. She’d not violated her probation. She’d committed no infraction that would cause the judicial system any alarm. But she was afraid of potentially violating her probation. The daughter who had promised to take care of her had deceived her. Bennett now risked facing homelessness, as she previously had been at times. As a homeless person, she would have no address to give the probation officer, no means of keeping up with the rigors of her appointments. She didn’t want to live with that threat for the next 10 years. She did the math. She figured it was safer to take the three-year prison term, much of which she’s already served.
In an astounding turn of events, the judge, her defense attorney–Public Defender Bill Bookhammer–and the prosecutor–Assistant State Attorney Tara Libby–all agreed, with another of Bennett’s daughters in the audience and Bennet standing before the judge in a radiantly scarlet dress with black stripes and a black mask. And though she was given the option of reporting for prison on a date of her choosing, she asked to be taken in immediately. She then walked herself over to the fingerprinting station, where the process of state prison incarceration would begin, starting with a return booking at the county jail she had so longed to leave.
The case of Tonya Bennett is a succession of disturbing catch-22’s that expose the threadbare condition of the social safety net in Flagler County, the uncompromising severity of the judicial system’s probationary system, and the way the local jail and state prison end up being the default asylums for people suffering from mental health illness, and having nowhere else to go for treatment.
Bennett’s record isn’t spotless. She’s been convicted on several drug and battery charges, and has already served a little over a year in state prison on a 2013 conviction of aggravated battery. She could have avoided prison even then, but had violated her probation. She knows the system, she knows her weaknesses. And she’s acknowledged her mental health problems, which have often gone untreated.
In June 2020 she started a fire outside the Family Dollar at 607 East Moody Boulevard, in back of the store. A Bunnell police officer quickly extinguished the flames with his fire extinguisher. But there’d been customers in the store. The charge was therefore first-degree felony arson, an obvious exaggeration: the State Attorney’s Office downgraded it to second-degree arson when it filed the charge days later, a still-serious felony that carries a 15-year maximum prison term. In a reflection of Bennett’s iffy mental state, a competency examination was ordered by the court. She was found competent to stand trial. Proceedings followed, and last August Bennett pleaded.
Part of the agreement was that she receives mental health treatment at Stewart Marchman Behavioral and stay on her prescribed medication. Bookhammer in August described the challenges: “The biggest problem we’ve had your honor, and it’s really been the problem from the beginning, is that we’ve tried to get her into Phoenix House, Phoenix House rejected her,” he said of the non-profit rehabilitation organization. Same story with another diversionary program. Stewart Marchman itself wouldn’t put her on a waiting list when she was in jail or even look at her case–not until she herself could go to SMA, only Daytona Beach, where the wait time for new patients was a month. “We don’t have no jail diversion program like we used to way back with Sonny Donaldson,” Bookhammer continued, referring to the former SMA official, “it’s sort of a sort of a rotten situation is that she doesn’t have anybody to be a case manager.
In the meantime Bennett had received assurances from one of her daughters that she would be housed. That turned out not to be the case. Latavia Bennett, another daughter–the daughter who was in the courtroom Monday–told the court that she had power of attorney on her mother’s behalf, and that her younger sister, Ashley Bennett, “promise[d] my mother housing and support that she could not provide. These promises guided my mother Tonya Bennett who’s incompetent to enter a plea arrangement that was not in Tonya’s best interest. My mother Tonya Bennett is still in recovery, in need of mental health services and trauma counseling.” Latavia Bennett revealed in her letter to the court that her mother had not, in fact, been taking the medications she was required to take since her release from jail, and that 10 years of probation was “setting her and her mental state for failure.”
That’s the case Bookhammer, who is usually the attorney doing everything he can to keep people from going to prison, was submitting to Perkins on Monday. The judge then asked Bennett directly if that’s what she intended. “I would like to do my time in prison because I’m scared that I might be homeless,” Bennett said, mentioning her daughter’s broken pledge.
“What did you find out?” Perkins asked.
“I found out that she didn’t stick by me,” Bennett said. There was no discussion of transitional housing, itself a rarity in the Seventh Judicial Circuit, which includes Flagler, Volusia, St. Johns and Putnam counties.
“Your concern is that if you continue on with a probationary sentence, you’re going to wind up violating probation,” Perkins said.
“And if you violate your probation,” Perkins said, “then of course you would be subject to a more severe penalty than if you were to accept the state’s offer at this stage, the prior offer that they made, 36 months. And I think if you violated, you would score probably a minimum of 47 or 48 months. So do you believe it’s in your best interest at this time to essentially revoke that sentence that you entered previously, and then be sentenced to the 36 months?”
Bennett said she did. The judge vacated the previous sentenced, took a new plea from Bennett and sentenced her to three years in prison, with credit for time served. All told, between her credit and gain time, Bennett is likely to serve little more than a year in prison. But her mental health treatment upon release remains an unanswered question, as does her housing status.
It isn’t uncommon for the homeless to commit crimes in order to be assured of shelter.
Thank goodness says
Thats a no brainer-I will take 3 yrs in prison over 10yrs probation all day/any day.Probation is a set up to keep one trapped in the system.If life isnt perfect and you violate your probation wich cost you $ in itself to be on and defaulting is in facta violation-guess what?Off to prison you go ANYWAY.I would much rather just serve my 3 yrs and pay my debt back to society and move on with my life without a word from anybody because you have paid for your crime.This isnt just here,this is everywhere.
Michael Cocchiola says
Homelessness? Mental health? Sorry. Flagler’s too busy fighting Republican cultural wars to take care of its disadvantaged residents.
Time to find more books to burn and promote more bigoted and/or amoral Republicans to positions of authority.
It sounds like this whole family needs intervention. And it shouldn’t wait until this lady is ready to leave the jailhouse again.
WOW, I hope she will get the treatment she needs. Mental illness is no joking matter. I hope she will be safe in prison. Is mental treatment that hard to get?
Ray W. says
It’s a very old problem, A.J. All kinds of different needs go untreated.
In the late ’80’s, I prosecuted a man for the armed robbery of the Red Barn liquor drive-through on S.R. 44 in DeLand. Late one night, young man drove into the barn and waved a handgun at the proprietor, who handed over some money. The man drove out of the barn and parked in the parking lot outside of the sight of the proprietor. The proprietor declined to call the police, stating later it was just another cost of business to him (I speculated at the time that police cruisers at the business would deter other customers late at night and cost him more money, but I just don’t really know). After about 15 minutes, the young man drove back into the barn and demanded to know why the police weren’t there. He again pointed the gun at the proprietor and told him to call the police. When an officer arrived, the man handed the officer the gun and the money and said he needed to be arrested. He wanted to go to prison, because he could not get help on the outside for his drug addiction. He was sentenced to prison.
As a child, I read a News-Journal article about the homeless man who walked up to the front doors of the old Daytona Beach Police Department on Orange Avenue and heaved a concrete block through the glass. When arrested, he told the officer that it was going to be below freezing that night and he wanted to spend the night in the county jail. Three hots and a cot, as the old phrase goes.
The Geode says
…and just WHAT do you suppose the “prisons” going to do? Dope them up with Thorazine and allow them to wander around like zombies until their release date? You people act like “prisons” gives a damn about an inmate further than the thousands of dollars they are worth to the system. There is no such thing as “rehabilitation” and a junkie who enters is a junkie who exits as a junkie with a bigger craving for what they remembered numb the pain they feel.
I have been in jail/prison with hundreds of people who, find god, swear off drugs, promise to go straight, etc… only to see them within a few weeks revert back into the life that caused them to become “prison fodder” in the first place.
Three years from now, it will be “wash, rinse, repeat”…
Ray W. says
The Geode is absolutely right and absolutely wrong at the same time.
I never advocated for prison time as a good choice anywhere in my comment, so the Geode is wrong in his response. I only related an early experience in my role as a prosecutor and a second experience as a much younger man.
Prisons certainly do not have a good track record for offering help to inmates who enter prison life with addictions, so the Geode is right in his response.
I suppose I could boil the issue down to the simple fact that the man I prosecuted held up a liquor store proprietor with a loaded gun. As a prosecutor, I could not just ignore such a fact pattern. The man repeatedly told the police and, later, his defense attorney that he wanted prison time because he believed he couldn’t get help elsewhere for his addiction. Would probation for the man under his perceived circumstances have been a better choice, the Geode?
The subject matter of the article involves a woman who feels that, for her, prison is a better choice than probation. After all, for some people probation is nothing more than a slow prison sentence, which fits what you describe as “wash, rinse, repeat…”
I have represented a significant number of people who instructed me to negotiate a sentence involving jail or prison time because they did not want to receive a sentence involving any form of probation.
In the end, thank you, the Geode, for your thoughts on this subject matter.
The Geode says
My reply wasn’t a retort to your particular story but germane to the original question posed by the person who made the initial comment. I will not argue the number of people you have prosecuted because that is your story to tell and your expertise. However, I have first-hand knowledge of the treatment of mentally challenged inmates and inmates with substance abuse issues within the jail/prison system. (I guess that’s my particular expertise …sad admission, I confess)
Everything seems “doable” and possible when there is a structured and disciplined environment to keep you away from the demons that haunt you at night and plague you during the day but absent these barriers and placed into a society that clearly doesn’t give a damn about you, the issues you had before is not only still there, but there is a pervasive cloud of loneliness and depression WITH the realization that nobody cares will compound whatever issues you had to begin with.
“wash, rinse, repeat”…
@Please stand for the anthem…
In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.
— Anatole France, The Red Lily (1894), ch. 7
Ms. Buffins says
Her daughter who was not present and has been lied on, has been taking care of her mother and making sure she has abs promised. It is her mother who not wanting anything of her daughters help due to her mental health and drug use from my understanding.
Timothy Patrick Welch says
People suffering with mental illness, brain damage, or addiction often end up incarcerated.
Society has failed them.
Cynthia Poole says
I love you Tonya be strong and stay in a prayful mind.