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How Government Is Working To Keep Coronavirus Out Of The Criminal Justice System

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Credit Nick Evans / WFSU News

Law enforcement and court officials are working to keep coronavirus out of their systems. Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil says his department is working to create more space inside their detention centers to comply with social distancing recommendations. That could involve releasing some inmates and using more discretion when it comes to booking new ones.

McNeil says he wants to stop arresting criminals for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses while also letting nonviolent criminals out of jail early to create space.

"We’re working with the judge, the judges in our region and the state attorney’s office to reduce the number of persons who we can release and not arrest in go into our facility," he said.

The target goal is to reduce the inmate population by 25%. Second Judicial Court State Attorney Jack Campbell says he has been helping with the downsizing.

"We’ve offered a lot of people plea offers or bonds to get out of jail effective immediately even before that we have any cases of COVID," Campbell said.

Campbell says he’s trying to find a balance between keeping the community safe and also keeping prisoners who have limited space inside the detention facilities, safe.  The goal is to create enough room in jails to allow inmates to social distance and self-isolate amid the coronavirus pandemic.

For criminals who must go behind bars, McNeil says they've setup a screening process.

"During the intake process we are obviously asking them the questions most of them aren't going to have been somebody who traveled outside of the United States but we ask those questions," he said. "We also take their temperature. We look at the symptoms that they might have."

The inmate is then put in a pod instead of joining inmates. They must stay there for 14 days and if they don't show any symptoms of the virus are then let out to join the other inmates.

The court system has also made some changes.

"The Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court has suspended trials for two weeks, he has suspended speedy trial for two weeks," Campbell said.

The court also canceled all jury trials, grand juries, and case management hearings. Campbell says the only things they do now are essential duties.

"Everybody has a right to be seen by a judge in 24 hours, it’s called first appearance we’re going to keep doing that," Campbell said. "Our office also handles what’s called Baker Acts which is involuntary mental health detentions where you’re involuntarily Baker Acted or taken into the custody for mental illness or substance abuse, we’re still going to do those."

Those same things apply to juveniles also. He says he isn’t sure how long the suspension will last. It is in place until next Friday but could be extended.

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