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With Florida trials postponed, some inmates could be behind bars awhile


By John Haughey | The Center Square

Many Florida law enforcement agencies are following citation-first policies to keep offenders out of lockups while some county jails are releasing those accused of nonviolent crimes to contain COVID-19 spread among the 150,000 people incarcerated in the state’s prisons and jails.

As a result, arrests appear to be down and jail populations in stasis or decline, indicating that localized business shutdowns and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order to close all bars and seated-dining at restaurants are keeping people home.

However, those incarcerated and awaiting trial, and those who end up behind bars on felony charges during the coronavirus emergency, might be in jail for a while as state and county courts slow proceedings to reduce courthouse activity.

The Florida Supreme Court issued a March 18 administrative order postponing all trials and proceedings in state courts until April 17 other than those critical to the state of emergency and public health emergency.

Many local and county courts are following suit, postponing hearings and trials while continuing to stage first appearance and bond hearings via closed-circuit TV.

This leaves many of the state’s 67 county jails and dozens of municipal lockups retaining defendants awaiting trials now delayed for an indeterminate time, which could prompt civil rights lawsuits for violating due-process rights.

In addition, the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) announced last week that state prisons would stop taking in inmates, stranding 900 recently sentenced people in county jails.

DOC agreed Thursday to accept about 60 percent of those inmates next week but faces another potential lawsuit in denying the 900 gain-time, which allows inmates to reduce sentences through good behavior once they are in DOC custody.

Sheriff’s offices and police departments across the state said they are urging officers to use discretion in making arrests, with a greater deference to issuing civil citations or promise-to-appear notices to offenders than they would under normal circumstances in an effort to relieve pressure on county jails.

In Leon County, 41 people were jailed between Sunday and Tuesday – 60 percent less than the last week of February.

Miami-Dade County police officers booked 84 people into jail Monday, down 50 percent from a typical Monday.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said daily arrests in his county have decreased “more than fourfold.”

The pattern is similar nationwide. Dramatic drops in crime were reported where the outbreak has been most severe, such as Los Angeles and New York City – both recorded double-digit declines in crime rates – and in mid-sized cities with relatively mild outbreaks, such as Muncie, Ind. Police in Muncie made six arrests this week during a 36-hour span when they typically would book 53 suspects.

On the other end of the system, county jails are determining which low-level, nonviolent convicted inmates can be released from sentences and which inmates being held on bond can be allowed to await trials at home.

Last week, Lake County Jail released 44 nonviolent inmates arrested on misdemeanor charges. This week, Hillsborough County early released 164 inmates. There were 3,753 inmates in Miami-Dade County jails Wednesday – down from a daily average of nearly 4,000.

Manatee and Sarasota are among county governments across the state that have asked jail commanders, state district prosecutors and court systems to look at various options in sending some inmates home.

Conversely, the Jacksonville District State Attorney’s Office, which spans Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, has asked county governments and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to reduce its pretrial detention center’s population, which at about 2,335 inmates, is about 150 over capacity.

COVID-19, Inmates, Jail, The Center Square, Trials


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