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.