Keeping jails safe while not releasing dangerous criminals is a balance

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – Demonstrators took to the sidewalks and streets, calling on Miami-Dade County officials to do everything they can to avoid a “humanitarian crisis” in the jails and send inmates home.

Across the state, police say a Hillsborough County inmate who was released from jail to prevent the spread of the coronavirus shot a man dead just a day later in Tampa.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie says she and her colleagues face a unique and delicate balancing act with huge implications on every side.

“As new cases are coming in, they’re being triaged very quickly with an eye toward keeping the jail population as low as possible, while still making sure the community is safe, and that everyone in the jail and anyone who is working in the jail is also safe,” said Sayfie, who has signed off on hundreds of release orders since early March.

A little more than a month ago, 3,800 inmates were booked into Miami-Dade County’s jails. As of Wednesday, that number is down to 3,300, according to the department of corrections.

The details of each case are reviewed one by one, with judges, state attorneys, public defenders offices, the corrections department and even victims’ families involved in the process.

“Reducing bonds, releasing people on GPS, releasing people on their own recognizance,” Sayfie said of some of the measures taken.

Three Miami-Dade inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, 45 corrections staff members have tested positive and 300 corrections staff members have been tested with the results pending.

It’s a place where social distancing often isn’t possible.

“A jail sentence is not meant to be a death sentence,” said Zaina Alsous, an activist with Dream Defenders, which filed a federal lawsuit against the Miami-Dade jail system, looking to get medically vulnerable inmates released. “Most of them are there because they are too poor to afford to pay the bond that the county is forcing them to pay in order to go home before their trial.”

Jury trials aren’t expected to resume until at least June.

In the meantime, the corrections department says 660 inmates have been released since early March to keep the jail population down.

The jail is also seeing fewer book-ins. Normally they can have 140-150 per day. As of Tuesday, that number was down to about 60.

Anthony Swain, whose son is among the 3,300 still in jail, said at Tuesday’s demonstration that he hopes to see those numbers go even lower.

“We’re praying that management, the operations, will change their hearts and their minds toward those that are incarcerated right now,” he said. “My concern is about all of them — but especially, our child.”

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