Many things are lacking in Florida’s correctional system, but maybe none more glaring right now than there is no mechanism to release non-violent offenders who are at high risk of developing complications due to COVID-19. Currently, there is no way for an attorney to request judicial screening for a just and humane amendment to a sentence, and no way for even the prison to request a judge review a prison term and determine if release is appropriate.
The Federal government through the First Step Act which allows for compassionate release in certain circumstances. In fact, Attorney General William Barr has directed the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to review inmate records to determine if they are at a higher risk of developing complications due to COVID-19. The First Step Acts even allows for an inmate’s attorney to request the sentencing judge to decide if releasing someone from prison and placed on home confinement or supervised release is appropriate.
The need for the Florida Legislature to add a provision for compassionate release is clearly seen by reviewing the statistics of the virus. As of April 12, there are 44 Department of Correction employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 and 36 inmates have tested positive as well. While this number may not seem large, we know that this virus is highly contagious, and these numbers will only increase. Inmates who have an underlying medical condition that make them susceptible to complications should have their sentence review by DOC and the sentencing Judges.
The Center for Disease Control has states that certain groups are at a higher risk for severe illness if they contact COVID-19. These Non-violent inmates with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or pulmonary issues do not all need to be put as risk of developing complications from COVID-19. The Florida legislature needs to act.
I do not envy the situation that our government is in currently. Speaking specifically about our state inmates this really is a no-win situation. The prisons were not designed to treat massive amounts of people who may become ill due to a new virus. The idea of social distancing in a prison setting is laughable. Public perception of releasing inmates is never popular. However, the government is in charge of these human beings, many of them vulnerable. The government owes it to the people they oversee to ensure their health. To quote Attorney General Barr, “The mission of BOP (Bureau of Prisons) is to administer the lawful punishments that our justice system imposes. Executing that mission imposes on us a profound obligation to protect the health and safety of all inmates.”