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Florida’s jails face potential overcrowding due to coronavirus

Criminal justice reform advocates fear the move will lead to unsanitary conditions

File photo: Duval County jail
File photo: Duval County jail

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Department of Corrections is restricting new inmate intakes for the rest of the month as the state takes steps to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Yet that decision has created a new potential problem: overcrowding in the state’s jails.

The corrections department is placing transfers of inmates from local jails to state prisons on hold until March 30. But the Southern Poverty Law Center is worried that it could max out jail capacities.

Summaya Saleh, a criminal justice reform attorney with the organization, said he fears the decision could lead to a bottleneck in county jails, placing the health and safety of inmates in jeopardy.

“People are being forced to live in even more cramped, and therefore unsanitary, conditions than typically exist in the jails,” Saleh said in a statement. “I mean, it’s like this Petri dish effect.”

Added Saleh: “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."

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said county sheriffs will work hand-in-hand with the corrections department in an effort to eliminate those concerns.

“This is an evolving situation that is being assessed each and every day,” Gualtieri said. “Sheriffs will continue to work closely with DOC to ensure public safety and keep our inmate population safe.”

The Florida Supreme Court has also ordered that jury selection and trials be suspended through March 27. It has been recommended that all other court proceedings be conducted remotely if possible.

The changes place new strains on the criminal justice system, which come after lawmakers failed to pass multiple legislative measures with an eye toward reducing the state’s prison population.

One such proposal was aimed at early release for elderly or sick inmates, a segment of society that’s now at a much higher risk because of the spread of coronavirus.

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

Plans to address coronavirus challenges moving forward are still in development, but criminal justice reform advocates like Saleh hope that lawmakers call a special session if no executive action is taken.