After criticism from civil rights activists and her 2020 election opponent, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced tonight that her office is formulating a plan to release misdemeanor and nonviolent inmates from the county jail system during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The decision is something of a reversal for Rundle's office. Yesterday her spokesperson, Ed Griffith, told New Times that prosecutors had no way to reduce the number of arrests. Activists and outside legal experts said that was not true. In an open letter, 18 activist and civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, demanded that Rundle do her part to help release inmates and halt the possible spread of the novel coronavirus.
Rundle's 2020 primary opponent, Melba Pearson, released a statement last week arguing that the State Attorney's Office needed to end cash bail and release new arrestees during the outbreak. Pearson also said she was open to limiting arrests during the outbreak. Pearson has positioned herself as a progressive challenger to Rundle, who has been the county's top prosecutor since 1993.
Miami-Dade Pretrial Services has convinced us that they have the capacity to handle these individuals who might otherwise remain in custody just based on lack of resources. We were also reassured today that no one in the jail has tested positive for COVID-19.— Kathy Rundle (@KathyFndzRundle) March 16, 2020
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Rundle's silence on the issue seemed strange over the weekend. Jails are notoriously filthy places where inmates live in close quarters and lack adequate medical care. Critics warn that COVID-19 outbreaks could be difficult to contain if the novel coronavirus reached local jails.
Prosecutors in other major cities affected by the outbreak have made calls to empty jails of all but the most dangerous inmates and essential personnel. San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin this month directed his prosecutors not to oppose defense motions to release any inmates imprisoned for misdemeanor or nonviolent felony drug cases. This week, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner also said he was revamping the way his office charges cases and sets bail. The Legal Aid Society of New York City has asked that the city's law enforcement system release vulnerable inmates and halt all arrests while the virus spreads.
What will happen if attorneys can't meet with their clients in jail? What if courtrooms are temporarily shut down? I fear this would lead to our local jail population ballooning as the release mechanisms are shut down.— Melba Pearson (@ResLegalDiva) March 12, 2020
Today Rundle's office also announced that a staffer in her office who had developed flu-like symptoms has tested negative for COVID-19. One recent arrestee also was tested for the virus, but the results have not yet been released to the public.