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State Attorney Says Remaining Inmates A Threat To Society, In Response To Calls From Advocacy Groups

prisoner sitting on a bench with prison bars on the foreground.
prisoner sitting on a bench with prison bars on the foreground.

The total number of COVID-19 cases stemming from Florida’s correctional facilities is nearing 5,000. Concern about the health of inmates has led to calls for Governor Ron DeSantis and local law enforcement authorities to release those behind bars. Community activist groups say holding people in a facility with a coronavirus outbreak could equate to a death sentence for some inmates. But law enforcement officials say the safety of community members has to be considered, too.

In March, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Governor DeSantis and Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch requesting more actions to protect inmates from COVID-19. Now, 4 months later, thousands of inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus and 34 have died. In the state capitol, an outbreak at the Leon County Detention Facility has seen 21 inmates testing positive so far. Local groups are calling once again for more action and protections for people in jail. Saskiya Fagan is a member of the local Dream Defenders group. She says her group and other community activist organizations recently sent a letter to local authorities.

“Our letter included actions such as releasing all people held on pretrial detention and bondable offenses, expanding emergency housing for returning citizens, and connecting them to health care providers as needed," Fagan said.

State Attorney Jack Campbell says since concerns about the coronavirus have grown officials have been working to release more inmates--or even keep them from ending up behind bars when possible.

“Specifically, here we’ve been looking at it since March, we dropped the population from about 1,200 to about 800 and something close to 900," Campbell said. "So you’re talking about a 20 to 25% reduction that we already took.”

Campbell says most of the people being held behind bars now are there because a judge has decided they need supervision.

"We still have the responsibility of protecting the public. Over the last 5 or 6 months, we have been trying to get people out as fast as we can despite not being able to have jury trials," Campbell said. "Some of those things have worked out well some of those have been candidly rather disastrous.

One of the cases Campbell says turned out “disastrous” involves Aaron Glee Jr., the man who admitted killing both Oluwatoyin Salau and Victoria Sims last month. Glee had been arrested two other times in the weeks leading up to the murders—once for punching a man in the face and again for kicking and punching a woman at a bus stop after she refused to have sex with him.

"Based on his history and the fact that he had repeatedly broken the law recently he was one of those that were released on bond that maybe in a traditional situation we would’ve had him held," Campbell said.

Trish Brown, a longtime activist and candidate for Tallahassee City Commission Seat 2, says she thinks there’s still a better solution than holding people in jail during a pandemic—like using “community control” to keep tabs on more violent offenders.

“We can do the house arrests as far as like the ankle bracelet. And then we can just put them into housing just like the homeless shelter has done with the homeless people and just keep monitor over people like that," Brown said.

But Campbell says those solutions don’t always work to keep community members safe.

"Ankle monitors are a great tool, and really often as they’re just GPS monitors, but they don’t stop crimes," Campbell said. "They’ll let us know where you were when you committed the crime, they’ll let us find you if you haven’t cut it off we may be able to find you easier. I’ve literally had people commit dozens and dozens of felonies while on an ankle monitor."

Moving forward Campbell says authorities will continue to evaluate each inmate to see if they meet the guidelines to be released prior to completing their sentence.

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