By: April Carson
After more than a year in jail on an arson charge, Tonya Bennett was begging Circuit Judge Terence Perkins to set her free and accept a ten-year probation sentence earlier this month. “I don't want to go to prison,” Bennett told the court emotionally. I've changed since then. “It’s great to be out on the streets again. And I'm grateful for it. I've seen a lot of people come and go here, as well as return, and I don't want to be the one that does it again.”
Perkins was in agreement.
Bennett returned to court on Monday. She was engaging in something that hardly anyone sees in Perkins or any other judge. She asked the judge to lift her probation and send her to a state prison facility.
She had not committed a new crime. Her probation hadn't been violated. She'd done nothing to worry the court system. But she was concerned about possibly breaking her bail condition. The daughter who had agreed to look after her mother had deceived her. Bennett was now at risk of becoming homeless, having previously been on several occasions. She would not be able to provide the probation officer with an address because she would be without a home. She didn't want to face that potential danger for the next ten years. She did some calculations. She decided it was better to accept a three-year prison sentence, which she has already spent a significant amount of time in jail for.
In a stunning development, the judge, her defense counsel–Public Defender Bill Bookhammer–and the prosecutor – Assistant State Attorney Tara Libby – all concurred on Bennett's second eldest daughter in attendance and Bennett standing before the court in a brilliantly crimson dress with black stripes and a black mask. She chose to report for prison on a date of her choosing, but she pled to be taken in immediately. She then walked herself over to the fingerprinting station, where the state prison incarceration procedure would begin with a return booking at the county jail she had longed to leave.
The saga of Tonya Bennett is a series of disturbing catch-22s that demonstrates the flimsy nature of the social safety net in Flagler County, the harshness of the judicial system's probationary system, and how local jails and state prisons become default asylums for people with mental health problems who have nowhere else to turn for help.
Bennett isn't without controversy. She has been convicted of drug and battery charges, and served almost a year in state prison on a 2013 conviction for aggravated battery. She could have avoided jail at that time, but she had violated her probation. She understands the system and the areas where she can improve. She's also been vocal about her mental health issues, which have frequently gone untreated.
She started a fire in the parking lot of the Family Dollar at 607 East Moody Boulevard in back of the business in June 2020. With his fire extinguisher, a Bunnell police officer quickly put out the flames. However, there had been people inside the store at the time. The State Attorney's Office originally charged Bennett with first-degree felony arson, a stark overstatement. When it filed the charge days later, the State Attorney's Office downgraded it to second-degree arson, which still carries a 15-year maximum penalty. In accordance with Bennett's fragile mental state, the court ordered a competency evaluation. She was declared competent to stand trial. The case was taken forward, and last August Bennett pleaded guilty.
She was also required to get mental health therapy at Stewart Marchman Behavioral and maintain her medicine, according to the settlement. In August, the Phoenix House incident was highlighted: “The greatest problem we've ever had, and it's been the issue from the start, is that we've tried to get her into Phoenix House.” The same story played out with another diversionary program. When she was in jail, Marchman wouldn't put her on a waiting list and didn't even look at her situation until she got to SMA in Daytona Beach, where the wait time for new patients was a month. “We don't have any of those jail diversion programs we had in the past with Sonny Donaldson," Bookhammer said. "It's kind of a terrible situation that she doesn't have anybody to be her case manager."
Meanwhile, Bennett had been given reassurances from one of her daughters that she would be housed. That was not the case. Latavia Bennett, another daughter who was in court Monday, informed the court that she had power of attorney for her mother and that her younger sister Ashley Bennett "informed me my mother could not provide." “As a result of these promises, my mother, Tonya Bennett, who was unable to enter into a plea bargain that was not in her best interests,” “My mother, Tonya Bennett, is still in recovery and requires mental health treatment as well as trauma counseling.” Latavia Bennett wrote to the court in her explanation, stating that her mother had not been taking her prescribed medications since her release from jail, and that 10 years of probation was “setting her and her mental state for failure.”
That's why, when Bookhammer is usually the attorney trying to prevent people from going to jail, he was submitting to Perkins on Monday. The court then asked Bennett directly if she meant it. “I'd want to go to prison because I'm concerned about being homeless; my daughter's broken pledge,” Bennett explains.
“What did you discover?” asked Perkins.
Bennett said, “I learned that she didn't stick by me.” There was no talk of temporary housing in the Seventh Judicial Circuit, which includes Flagler, Volusia, St. Johns and Putnam counties.
“You're a little concerned that if you stay on with a probationary sentence, you'll end up breaking probation,” Perkins explained.
“And if you break your probation,” Perkins concluded, “you will face a more severe penalty than if you accepted the state's offer at this time, the previous offer they made, 36 months. “And I believe if you breached, you would get at least 47 months. So do you think it's in your interests right now to simply annul the penalty you received previously and then be sentenced to 36 months in jail?”
Bennett testified to this. The previous sentence was revoked, and Bennett was sentenced to three years in prison with credit for time served. Between her credit and gain time, Bennett is likely to serve somewhere between six months and a year in jail. But she doesn't know where she'll live or whether she'll get mental health treatment when she gets out.
It's not unusual for the homeless to commit offenses in order to obtain safe housing.
Billy Carson Instagram Live Update 12/07/2021
About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav
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