The day Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a public health state of emergency over COVID-19, there were 3,897 people incarcerated in Miami-Dade County’s jail system, the largest county jail system in the state. As the pending reality of the threat started to be understood, a growing number of officials have started to take concrete steps to reduce the number of people locked up in jails and prisons.
Activists, in turn, are finally seeing some policy shifts being enacted that they have called on for years. And they are guardedly optimistic about what that could mean in the long term.
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The county’s daily jail population peaked on March 12, three days after DeSantis declared a state of emergency. Since then, the jail population has steady climbed downward, dropping as low as 3,469 on March 30, according to the Miami-Dade Department of Corrections.
The numbers began to dip sharply following an open letter written by various advocacy and nonprofit groups to county officials on March 15. The letter demanded they reduce the population of the corrections system, calling it a “public health mandate.”
“The whole incarceration system is a pool for disease,” said Helen Peña, co-founder of the feminist activist group FemPower, which co-signed the letter.
Peña said that she feared that once the coronavirus gets inside of the crowded jail system, it will spread like wildfire, potentially affecting hundreds of elderly inmates, many of whom have yet to be convicted of any crime. Last week, the Miami-Dade Department of Corrections acknowledged that three officers working in different facilities tested positive for COVID-19. The officers worked with inmates.
“When we released the demands we knew that it was only a matter of time before this would happen,” Peña said. “That’s why it’s so urgent that people act quickly on this and immediately on this, because the virus is spreading as we speak.”
FemPower has launched an effort to raise funds to bail out inmates who are waiting for trial, modeled on a similar effort the group ran last year. The group hopes to be able to bail out at least ten people from Miami-Dade’s jails.
“I can tell you I do not remember the last time that I saw such a low number of people in custody in Miami-Dade County,” said Carlos Martinez, the county's public defender.
Those efforts started by working with state attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle to help streamline the release of many misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenders. Many were released through that process, said Martinez, but that only applied to people still waiting for trial, not people who had already been sentenced.
“Right now I am reviewing the people who have been sentenced and are serving a jail sentence — to try to come up with some agreement that those can be released,” Martinez said. “That’s another 300 people.”
A separate determining factor has also been at play as the numbers come down: police are simply arresting and booking far fewer people into jails. In Miami-Dade, for example, 172 people were booked into the jail system on March 3, before the state of emergency was declared. By the March 20, the number of new daily bookings had significantly started to decrease, dropping as low as 50 new bookings on March 30.
The trend is taking place across the whole state.
“We’re down about 60-plus percent in terms of the arrests that we see coming in,” Broward Sheriff Greg Tony told WLRN. Instead, officers are urged to issue civil citations or noticed to appear in court on a future date, rather than booking them into the county jail system.
The idea has been floated on statewide phone calls with the Florida Sheriffs Association as a way to reduce exposure to both officers and to inmates already in the system. Virtually all the sheriffs offices in the state are in agreement with the approach, said Tony.
Tony communicated the idea to all the municipal police chiefs in Broward County, and he said so far numbers indicate they are all taking it to heart.
“Those inmates would end up going to Broward Health or some medical institute, which would further burden the medical system, which is what we’re trying to reduce by having people go to social distancing,” Tony said. “We don’t want to overwhelm the medical system.”
On March 8, the Broward jail population was 3,505. By March 29, it had dropped by nearly 300 people, according to population snapshots provided by the Broward Sheriff’s Office.
The measures that have brought about the drop in jail population numbers are cautiously being applauded by activists who have long called for structural changes in the criminal justice system, even before the crisis.
“I’m saddened that it has taken such a global emergency and pandemic for law enforcement officers and for courts and for state attorneys to finally recognize that these individuals did not need to be sitting in custody in the first place,” said Jackie Azis, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "When we've pushed for civil citations in the past, say, we've been met with a lot of opposition at every turn."
The push to issue civil citations and notices to appear for low level crimes instead of booking someone into jail should remain in place whenever the crisis is over, she said.
“It’s absolutely a good thing that they’re cutting these arrests for low level offenses,” echoed Maya Ragsdale, an attorney who works with community justice nonprofits and organizations in South Florida. “We’ve been asking law enforcement to do this since way before coronavirus was on anyone’s radar.”
But Ragsdale said the situation also casts further doubt onto the system of cash bail that activists have been moving to repeal across the nation. Without being able to post money for bail, lower-income defendants are left in jail, while wealthier defendants can get released.
On a recent visit to Metro West Detention Center in Miami-Dade, Ragsdale said she met several ill inmates whose bonds are set for as low as $1,500. That means they would only need to raise $150 to get out on bail, but many are too poor to pay that amount.
“It’s a situation that feels so inhumane and so concerning, in light of the fact of how fast this virus could spread in the jail, given the close quarters,” Ragsdale said.
Some sheriff’s offices in the state have become increasingly proactive with getting inmates out of their jail systems due to the threat of coronavirus. Sheriffs in Hillsborough, Volusia and St. Johns counties have released large numbers of inmates who are being held on nonviolent charges, with approval from the court systems.
Broward and Palm Beach counties have not made similar pushes to release inmates already in custody. Broward Sheriff Tony said the county’s jail system is “operating well under capacity” and that steps are being taken to reduce risk of any spread, in the case that it does enter the system.
Palm Beach Sheriff Ric Bradshaw outright dismissed questions about releasing inmates during a Sunday press conference.
“I am not going to release anybody from the jail. There’s no need to release anybody from the jail,” Bradshaw said. “There’s no inmates that are sick. I’ve got plenty of capacity there.”
Yet jail bookings in Palm Beach County have also sharply gone down since the state of emergency was declared by Gov. DeSantis, according to the Sun Sentinel.
All of the movement around county jails has been happening in a time of crisis, when court systems are running less hearings than ever before.
Nushin Sayfie is the head of the circuit criminal division of the 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami-Dade County. “We’re going through like what we see during a hurricane,” she said. “The difference is now that it’s going to be lasting longer.”
Hearings in criminal courts are closed to all except for the most pressing issues and cases. Virtual courtrooms have been set up. Sayfie’s office has been coordinating with prosecutors and defense attorneys through it all, to try to make it easier for people who are in custody to get out.
“Right now the difficulty is you’re trying to make sure all these people are not being either illegally or improperly or inappropriately incarcerated at a time when access [to the courts] is more difficult,” Sayfie said.
Yet the courts have proved to be surprisingly adaptive, despite a computer system that still runs on MS-DOS, Sayfie said.
For instance, prosecutors, defense attorneys, the clerk of courts office, and the court system have quickly developed a system to more quickly notify defendants when their charges are getting dropped by prosecutors, rather than having to wait for a court appearance.
That change only happened because of the impact that COVID-19 has brought about, Sayfie said.
Generally, the different parts of the criminal system have been working in unison in a way that is rarely seen.
“There are certain things that are being put into place that hopefully will continue on,” she said. “But we have managed to do without them, because we haven’t had a crisis like this.”