In an open letter issued this afternoon, 18 activist groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Dream Defenders, Community Justice Project, and New Florida Majority — demanded that county jail leaders:
- release all bondable pretrial inmates immediately;
- let out all convicted inmates with less than 60 days left in their sentences;
- pause new bookings;
- and stop holding detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after they would otherwise be released.
In an email today, Ed Griffith, a spokesperson for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, told New Times that prosecutors have no control over who's arrested or released from jail. He did not respond to a follow-up email asking if prosecutors planned to ask local law enforcement agencies to modify their behavior during the COVID-19 outbreak. (State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has issued countywide memos to law enforcement in other situations.)
A spokesperson for Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation (MDCR), Juan Diasgranados, said the decision to release inmates is mostly up to judges in the court system. Florida Chief Justice Charles Canady this past Friday suspended virtually all in-person court proceedings for jury trials, but inmates remain locked behind bars in close quarters with one another.
"We will continue to work with the 11th judicial circuit courts, state attorneys' officers, and the public defenders' offices to ensure that any defendants eligible for release or diversion are processed accordingly," Diasgranados said.
But critics believe Miami-Dade County isn't doing enough to protect inmates during the outbreak. Melba Pearson, the former ACLU attorney and prosecutor running against Rundle in the upcoming August primary election, issued a press release earlier this week demanding the county end the use of cash bail and let pretrial inmates out of jail. She also urged the county to suspend costs for phone calls inside the jail system, create a "rocket docket" to review anyone unable to exit the jail system owing to bail costs, and hire more medical personnel inside the jails.
"State Attorney Rundle should immediately place a moratorium on the use of cash bail in Miami-Dade," Pearson said last week. "Jails are notorious for the spread of disease to staff and incarcerated persons. To help slow the spread of the coronavirus, individuals who do not pose a danger to the community should be released on their own recognizance."
Not only should we be limiting arrests during this pandemic, but we also need to place a moratorium on bail and release people currently incarcerated pre-trial who do not pose a danger to our community but are locked up solely because they can't afford bail.— Melba for Miami-Dade State Attorney (@MelbaForMiami) March 15, 2020
A spokesperson for the Miami Police Department could not confirm whether any arrests will be paused but said officers "have the ability to exercise discretion" regarding whether someone needs to go to jail. Spokesperson Kiara Delva said the department encourages people to file police reports for property-related crimes online or via the department's nonemergency phone line.
"At the same time, we would like to ensure our residents that we will continue to handle our duties and responsibilities as their public servant," Delva said via email. "Our department is robust and our officers will continue to respond to calls for service where there's a need for police presence, including ALL emergencies, disturbances, etc. Once again this is all in an effort to minimize as much contact as possible and to keep everyone safe."
The Miami-Dade and Miami Beach Police Departments did not immediately respond to messages from New Times.