State Attorney’s Office pushes for release of certain nonviolent offenders from jail

State Attorney Melissa Nelson’s office working to cut down on number of inmates amid coronavirus pandemic

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The coronavirus outbreak is changing the way Northeast Florida’s legal system operates and how it deals with inmates

A new memo from the State Attorney’s Office urges prosecutors to look at the possibility of letting certain nonviolent offenders out of jail to cut down on the number of inmates. This applies to Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, but others are also taking similar measures.

State Attorney Melissa Nelson told News4Jax by phone that the plan has been in the works for a while now after health experts asked jails across the nation to reduce their numbers. At the same time, Florida’s prison aren’t taking any new inmates, so they’re piling up in county jails.

“We are expediting our work so that we can assist them in the reduction of the population,” Nelson said.

One reason for this new directive is there is the fact that there are hundreds of inmates in close quarters at jails, some coming and going, using common dining halls and showers.

“Our goal here is to support our county jails,” Nelson said.

News4Jax obtained the four-page internal memo from the State Attorneys Office, asking prosecutors in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties to keep the community healthy by:

  • Reviewing cases where the state offer is one year or less behind bars to see if probation or release is appropriate.
  • This applies to nonviolent offenders.
  • Attorneys must first consult with victims before the cases are ruled on.
  • It does not apply to registered sex offenders, those who are a danger to society or a flight risk.

READ | Memo from State Attorney’s Office to prosecutors

Since a state of emergency has been declared, some people taking advantage of the times, such as looters or robbers, could face more serious penalties.

“We don’t know when court is going to get cranked back fully -- maybe weeks or months,” said Chief Public Defender Charlie Cofer.

Cofer, who is normally on the other side of the courtroom, spoke with the state attorney, the chief judge and law enforcement, and agrees with the decision.

“This isn’t just to help the inmates out. This is to prevent a situation in which you have, potentially, the virus introduced into a very crowded facility and then it spreads rapidly through that environment and people are coming and going,” Cofer said.

There’s a focus on those most at risk for COVID-19 -- people of 60 years old and those with medical conditions.

“Some may see this as get out of jail free card,” News4Jax said to Nelson.

“I’m glad, Vic, that you’ve asked this. In fact, we are trying to distinguish the people who are eligible for release -- non-violent offenders and misdemeanors,” she said. “This is not a get out of jail free card.”

As of Monday afternoon, there were no confirmed cases in the Duval County jail. If there were, there are isolation rooms and inmates could be taken to a hospital. The point here is to avoid that crisis.

As for court appearances for inmates, their first appearance before a judge is a little different. They’re still brought into this courtroom in the jail. But the judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys are video-conferenced in from the county courthouse down the road. It limits exposure. Prosecutors are encouraged to settle the cases here if possible to avoid future court dates.

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