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Hillsborough jail inmates with low-level offenses may be released amid coronavirus fears

Hillsborough’s chief judge authorized the sheriff to release people awaiting trial for low-level criminal charges.
The Lady Justice sculpture stands in front of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court in downtown Tampa.
The Lady Justice sculpture stands in front of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court in downtown Tampa. [ TIMES (2017) ]
Published Mar. 18, 2020
Updated Mar. 18, 2020

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TAMPA — People who are stuck in Hillsborough County’s jails awaiting trial for low-level criminal charges may soon be released in an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

In an order issued late Wednesday, Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta authorized Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister to release certain inmates from jail. The order covers people accused of third-degree felonies, criminal traffic offenses, misdemeanors, and county and municipal ordinance violations.

It gives the sheriff the discretion to release inmates who are not believed to pose a threat to public safety.

Chronister said earlier Wednesday he was exploring options to reduce the jail population, including the release of some pretrial detainees charged with low-level, non-violent crimes.

“Anyone who’s a non-violent offender, those individuals will be the ones I will consider releasing on their own recognizance,” he said. “Their day in court will come, they just won’t have to wait in one of our detention facilities.”

Related: Evictions suspended in Hillsborough through April 20. The sheriff had 250 to serve now.

It is unclear how many inmates might be released or how soon they will be freed. Hillsborough County has two jail facilities, on Falkenburg and Orient Roads, which have a total average population hovering around 3,000 inmates a day.

The judge’s order does not apply to those being held on first or second-degree felony charges. It is similar to emergency measures that have been taken in advance of approaching hurricanes.

A sheriff’s spokeswoman said the agency is planning to address this issue at a 6 a.m. Thursday news conference at the Orient Road Jail.

Following Hillsborough’s announcement, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said there will be no changes at his jail.

Across the bay, about 220 inmates were sleeping on rubber mattresses on the floor of the Pinellas County jail as of Monday. The jail population has ballooned in recent days after the Florida Department of Corrections, which runs the state prison system, stopped accepting inmate transfers from county jails. That means that offenders who have been sentenced, or were staying temporarily at a county jail for some other reason, can’t go back to the prison in which they were serving their sentence.

Gualtieri said Tuesday that he will consider other options before starting to release inmates. Those include moving inmates to jails in other counties that have more capacity.

“There are hundreds of open beds in county jails across Florida,” he said. “Further, I know of no county jail with any cases of the virus.”

Public health officials warn against crowds and close contact and preach practicing social isolation. Civil rights groups have urged jails to take immediate action to shrink jail populations. Chief among their suggestions is the release of pretrial offenders, or those inmates who have been arrested but haven’t yet been sentenced.

Jackie Azis, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, praised Hillsborough’s decision. Judicial circuits in the rest of the state should issue similar orders as soon as possible, she said.

“It’s really good to see the courts act quickly,” she said. "People who are sitting in custody pretrial and are not a risk to the community — they need to be released immediately. They need to go home. They need to quarantine like the rest of us.”

Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report.

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