HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. – Officials ordered nonviolent offenders to be released from custody Wednesday to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus at Hillsborough County Jails.
According to officials, low-level, nonviolent offenders in the Orient Road Jail and the Falkenburg Road Jail were released from custody.
Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said during a news conference Thursday that releasing the inmates will allow the detention deputies and jail staff to focus on higher priorities.
The county, which includes Tampa, has about 2,700 inmates at two facilities . So far, there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus among the inmates, the sheriff said. He said they’ve closed the lobbies at the jails, suspended video visitation and are having extra cleaning crews come in to disinfect in hopes of curbing the spread of the virus.
“As your sheriff, there is nothing I take more seriously than public safety and protecting our community,” said Sheriff Chad Chronister. “In times of crisis, like the health crisis we are facing, agencies around the country are finding ways to balance public safety and the health of their employees and neighbors. We are no different.”
According to a news release, 164 inmates were approved for release.
"These defendants are the lowest public safety risk and many were merely sitting in jail because they could not afford to pay the amount it would take to bond out,” Chronister said. “These defendants will still have to answer for the criminal charges against them.”
Deputies say that by decreasing the size of the inmate population, they will reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus to inmates, detention deputies, civilian staff members, their families and ultimately the entire community.
“Violent offenders who pose a high risk to the community will remain in jail while they await their due process in criminal court,” deputies said.
Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta signed an administrative order authorizing Chronister to release certain inmates during the state of emergency that is similar to actions taken in an approaching hurricane.
“The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has routinely taken this emergency action in times of crisis. Most recently, in 2017 during Hurricane Irma, low-level, non-violent offenders were released from custody,” deputies said.
The sheriff said if any of the released inmates commit another crime, they will be dealt with “in the strictest manner possible."
“During this health crisis, we must focus our law enforcement resources on our highest priorities. Public safety and the health of our team are at the top of that list,” said Sheriff Chronister. “It is my hope that these individuals will make the most of this opportunity to be with their loved ones during this time of uncertainty.”
The sheriff said new inmates are being screened for travel history and they are flagging anyone suffering from flu-like symptoms.
The new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but older adults and those with existing health problems can develop severe complications, including pneumonia. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
The Associated Press contributed to this story