Coronavirus impacts: Florida court closures could mean delayed justice for innocent inmates

Coronavirus

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WFLA) – The Florida Supreme Court has ordered all jury trials in the state suspended until June due to coronavirus, extending a previous order by two months.

The potential of innocent people sitting in jail for an extended period of time has human rights groups and defense attorneys sounding the alarm.

Jury trials have been suspended in Florida due to hurricanes in the past but Richard Greenberg with the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said the now three-month delay for COVID-19 is different.

“People sitting in jail are very, very concerned,” Greenberg said. “Every week it seems like the deadlines are being pushed back.”

Those charged with a misdemeanor normally have the right to a trial within 90 days and those with felony charges 175. But under the current order, those rights have been waived.

The concern from groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center is that innocent people could have to spend longer behind bars if they can’t make bail.

“What I fear is going to happen is we’re going to see more people pleading guilty just to get out of jail. Not because they committed the crime, not because they don’t have a viable defense,” Sumayya Saleh with the Southern Poverty Law Center said.

There are also concerns of overcrowding.

While justice may be on hold, police are still making arrests.

And in the midst of a pandemic, lives could be on the line.

“Jails are one of the most dangerous places for people to be in the midst of a global pandemic. It’s not possible for people to socially distance,” said Saleh.

But Greenberg hopes the state finds other solutions like non-monetary bond for nonviolent offenders.

“They may be able to get arrested and booked and released. They don’t have to sit in jail because they can’t afford to post bond,” said Greenberg.

So far, the governor has not expressed support for early inmate release or any executive action that could provide alternatives to monetary bond.

Some court proceedings will still be held in the midst of the crisis. Those include first appearances and bail hearings.

The Supreme Court has encouraged those hearings be conducted remotely.

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