Gordon Weekes, the chief public defender in Broward County, Florida, believed that March 2020 could have compelled the start of something different for the criminal legal system. The COVID-19 pandemic had just hit the U.S. Officials all over the nation needed to decide whether they would risk letting thousands of people contract a potentially fatal disease simply because they were incarcerated in overcrowded and unsanitary jails and prisons.
At first, he was hopeful. Local cops, prosecutors, and judges worked with defense attorneys to lower the jail population of Broward County, a region of nearly 2 million people that includes the cities of Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood. By last April, the jail population was less than 3,000 people for the first time in decades. But now, nearly one year later, COVID-19 is spreading at a higher rate, and the county jail population has instead risen once again. Weekes confirmed to The Appeal that, as of mid-January, nearly 3,500 people were being held.
“I was hoping that the pandemic would give people some real-life data to show the justice system, and the ways we’ve been doing things in the past, was inherently flawed,” Weekes told The Appeal. But, he added, “it seems like no one has learned anything from the last year when we’ve been addressing this issue. That is the great frustration you have with the system.”
That frustration is shared in cities around the nation. According to numerous news reports, as well as data obtained by The Appeal, the number of people held pretrial in many of America’s major cities rose during the latter half of 2020. In some cities, jail populations have now risen back to their pre-pandemic populations.
According to a review by The Appeal, jail populations in New York City, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Dallas, Miami, Broward County, Orlando, and Tampa declined briefly in early 2020 and have since returned to pre-pandemic levels. Other major cities that released some incarcerated people in early 2020, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Columbus, Ohio, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Boston, Indianapolis, Oakland, Denver, and Austin, Texas, have seen their jail populations swell over the latter half of 2020, but they remain somewhat lower than their pre-pandemic levels.
“I thought everyone would take this as a lesson learned, but it seems old habits are hard to break,” Weekes said.
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