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COVID-19 outbreak forces rollback to Phase 1 protocols as infections hit courts, prosecutors

The State Attorney’s Office copes with staff infections, even as it redoubles efforts to shrink the jail population amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A new COVID-19 reality took hold of the local criminal justice system Monday as infections forced a rollback of recent steps to reopen and officials struggled to deal with an outbreak of the coronavirus at the Duval County Jail.

Local prosecutors hoping to combat the spread of COVID-19 at the jail are simultaneously dealing with infections in their own ranks. The news that some prosecutors tested positive for the virus forces a rollback to Phase 1 protocols at the State Attorney's Office, which limit in-building staff to just 25 percent with others required to work from home.

It's not clear if the infections will force the court system to step down efforts to reopen, which began in June. First Coast News has reached out to Chief Judge Mark Mahon for comment.

The news that the virus is impacting prosecutors comes as they redouble efforts to reduce the jail population in Jacksonville in light of soaring COVID-19 cases.

The State Attorney’s Office hopes to release at least 200 inmates accused of nonviolent offenses and lower-level felonies, excluding gun crimes and sex offenses. Specifically, they will review:

  • All misdemeanors
  • Third-degree felonies, with the exception of possession of a weapon by a convicted felon, aggravated assaults, sex crimes and thirrd-degree battery charges
  • Second-degree drug charges, including drug sales
  • All dealing in stolen property cases.

The move comes three months after the State Attorney first announced it planned to reduce jail populations to prevent the coronavirus from gaining a foothold. Initially, the jail population shrank by more than 22 percent, but according to news partner the Florida Times-Union, the population soon crept back up to pre-pandemic levels.

Just over a week ago, the jail reported zero cases. That jumped to 20 cases last Monday, a figure that doubled every other day for the next six days. The current number of COVID-19 cases in jail as of Monday is 178. Twenty-nine corrections officers also tested positive.

According to a statement by the State Attorney's Office Monday:

“In mid-March we implemented a set of COVID-19 guidelines to review and resolve cases faster than required by law. Those guidelines are still in place. Given how the virus has now impacted the Duval County jail and our community, we are working with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Regional Conflict Counsel, and private defense bar to expand our previous collective efforts. Prosecutors are re-reviewing all misdemeanor and certain non-violent felony cases to determine if expedited resolution is feasible, or alternatively, whether a release on recognizance is appropriate. These decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis with the public health and safety paramount to these decisions.

Defense attorneys will also seek appearance waivers, so their clients don’t have to be moved through the jail for Zoom court appearances.

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