TALLAHASSEE — Florida law enforcement officials are locking up fewer people and in some cases releasing non-violent offenders, a strategy designed to stem the spread of the coronavirus through the state’s criminal-justice system.
The new approach is showing up across the state.
In Hillsborough County, law enforcement officials last week released 164 non-violent offenders who could not afford to bail out of jail.
In Pinellas County, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the number of daily arrests has plummeted more than fourfold as deputies try to move to a citation-first approach.
And in Leon County, whose crime rate ranks the highest in Florida, booking records show 41 people had been jailed during the first three days of this week. That is a 60 percent drop from the same period during the last week of February, before the first coronavirus case was recorded in Florida.
“People are not out as much anymore, and deputies are using more discretion in their enforcement activities … and when they are making a decision to take some action, it is not always a physical arrest, there’s also tickets or citations,” Gualtieri, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said in a phone interview Wednesday.
The changes offer a concrete glimpse at how the coronavirus is reshaping huge swaths of Florida’s criminal-justice system and street-level law enforcement.
Some of the changes came after Department of Corrections officials announced prisons would stop taking in inmates from county jails until March 30. The move left roughly 900 inmates who were scheduled to be transported to prisons last week temporarily stranded at local facilities, according to Gualtieri, who has been communicating with sheriffs across the state.
After talks with Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, Gualtieri told The News Service of Florida that prisons will resume taking in new inmates from counties on Monday, but the intake will not be in full swing. Gaultieri said it will be about 60 percent — which amounts to “hundreds” — of the regular intake.
Meanwhile, the Florida Supreme Court has extended a suspension of jury trials and other in-person court proceedings through April 17 in an effort to comply with health officials’ recommendations to curb the spread of the highly contagious disease.
The halt of jury trials means “people will inevitably stay longer in jail,” according to Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout, who added it could potentially become a violation of offenders’ due-process rights and protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
“I believe courts need to be more responsive to the pleas for release!” Haughwout wrote in an email Wednesday.
Last week, Haughwout said the state’s decision to stop the flow of county inmates concerned her because it means offenders are losing the opportunity to earn gain-time awards, which allow eligible inmates to reduce their sentences through good behavior.
“People do not start earning gain time until they are in DOC (the Department of Corrections) so increasing the stay at the county jail can increase the actual time they serve,” Haughwout said in an email.
As coronavirus cases soared past 2,300 across Florida, and state prison and county jail employees test positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, criminal justice advocates on Thursday began to put more pressure on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration to take additional steps to protect staff and inmates.
In a letter to DeSantis and Inch, five groups asked for more measures that will “address the very real possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak” in prisons and jails.
“Florida faces the possibility of exposing its nearly 25,000 correctional and supervision officers to the virus and risk infecting the communities they return home to each day. The state also risks exposing the roughly 7,600 incarcerated people over the age of 60,” the groups, which include The James Madison Institute, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the Faith & Freedom Coalition, wrote in the letter.
Their recommendations include releasing elderly inmates and non-violent offenders with compromised immune systems ahead of schedule, giving inmates and staff free soap and hand sanitizer and suspending arrests of people who commit “technical violations” while on probation or parole.
“There is a much greater risk that the virus will hit our county jail than the state system. When it does, it will be very difficult to control given the inability to properly distance people from one another,” Haughwout said.