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Florida Prison Population Drops During Pandemic

TALLAHASSEE --- Pointing to a backlog of criminal cases during the coronavirus pandemic, state analysts say the number of inmates in Florida prisons has dropped --- but is expected to snap back to more-normal levels in the coming years.

The analysts, in a report posted online Monday, said the prison system had 82,027 inmates at the end of October and that the number is projected to go as low as 80,792 at the end of November. The number of inmates is forecast to be at 82,116 in June, the end of the state’s fiscal year.

By comparison, the system had as many as 100,050 inmates in June 2015 and 95,626 inmates as recently as June 2019. In June 2020 --- after the pandemic started --- the system had 87,736 inmates, according to the report issued by a panel known as the Criminal Justice Estimating Conference.

The decreases have come as the court system has dramatically scaled back face-to-face proceedings, including trials, to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. That has helped lead to a reduction in prison admissions.

“As a result of the continuing pandemic, the courts have developed a backlog of pending felony cases (30,999) that is expected to take several years to work its way through to the prison population,” an executive summary of the report said. “At this time, they do not expect to return to full operating capacity until FY 2021-22, with their backlog expected to take until the end of FY 2023-24 to resolve itself.”

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady issued emergency procedures in March that included suspending jury trials and suspending what are known as “speedy trial” procedures in criminal cases. Limited jury trials have since resumed in parts of the state.

Canady on Tuesday issued two new and two revised orders about how the court system should operate during the pandemic, as the state continues to get hit with thousands of new cases each day. The orders take a phased approach to reopening courts, with a focus on holding remote proceedings when possible.

While the number of inmates is expected to remain relatively low throughout this fiscal year, the analysts are expecting steady increases in the coming years as prison admissions climb.

After the projection of 82,116 inmates in June 2021, the report forecasts 86,463 in June 2022, 89,731 in June 2023 and continued increases to 92,911 in June 2026.

The executive summary of the report said county sheriffs also appear to be “tightly managing jail capacity,” which can affect credits that criminal defendants receive for their time behind bars. That also could play a part in future population numbers in the state prison system.

The analysts wrote that “an unknown number of future inmates will earn atypically low jail credits prior to sentencing and transfer to the state system. As conditions return to normal, the clearance of the backlog coupled with the reduced amount of accrued jail credits is expected to increase prison admissions and the resulting population over the forecast period.”

Jim Saunders / News Service of Florida
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