Courts scale back, jails face overcrowding due to COVID-19

Published: Mar. 18, 2020 at 6:01 PM EDT
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By: Jake Stofan | Capitol News Service

March 18, 2020

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CNS) -- Florida’s Department of Corrections announced it would be restricting new inmate intakes to its prisons amid the coronavirus scare and courts will significantly scale back operations.

Transfers of inmates from local jails to state prions Inmates will largely be on hold until at least March 30.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has serious concerns of overcrowding.

“I think it's going to create this bottleneck where the jails are being overcrowded, people are being forced to live in even more cramped and therefore more unsanitary conditions than typically exist in the jails creating, I mean, it's like this petri dish effect,” said Sumayya Saleh with the SPLC.

President of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said in a statement on the halting of prison intakes, “This is an evolving situation that is being assessed each and every day. Sheriffs will continue to work closely with DOC to ensure public safety and keep our inmate population safe.”

The Supreme Court also ordered jury selection and trials be halted through March 27.

All other proceedings are encouraged to be conducted remotely.

“We have no idea how long this is going to last and how long these delays are going to be in place. People could theoretically be spending several extra months in jail in a very unsafe, unsanitary environment,” said Saleh.

The new strains on the criminal justice system come after lawmakers failed to pass multiple legislative proposals aimed at reducing prison populations.

One of those proposals was aimed at early release for elderly or sick inmates, a population now at high risk due to the coronavirus.

“Most of them were not sentenced to death, but this epidemic may very soon result into death sentences for people that is entirely preventable,” said Saleh.

Plans to address coronavirus challenges moving forward are still in development, but criminal justice advocates hope short of executive action, if a special session is called lawmakers will give some of the proposed criminal justice reforms a second look.