COVID-19 continues to slow trials, create jail overcrowding

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PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — Bay County’s jail remains overcrowded as the entire judicial system struggles to operate during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Maj. Rick Anglin oversees judicial services for the Bay County Sheriff’s Office. On Thursday, the jail had 1,210 inmates even though it is only meant to hold 1,134. Another 90 inmates are being housed in the Walton County Jail. 

“I can tell you right now it’s worse than it has ever been,” Anglin said. “We have never had this many inmates under our supervision.” 

Anglin, Sheriff Tommy Ford, and local judges, defense attorneys, and State Attorney Larry Basford have been working on the problem since the court system shut down in 2020 because of the pandemic. The Sheriff’s Office created a house arrest program that includes GPS monitoring and requires judicial approval. Anglin said that stemmed the tide for a while. 

Then, earlier this year they began sending inmates to the Walton County Jail and that too created some breathing room. But as the pandemic continues so does the overcrowding. 

“It’s frustrating for us,” Anglin said. “There’s only so much we can do.”

He added that several years ago the average stay for an inmate at the jail was 75 to 80 days. Currently, the average stay is 145 days.  

“It’s like a perfect storm,” Anglin said. 

Taking any case to trial has always been a long and deliberate process with time built in for motions, depositions and simple scheduling issues. Even before Hurricane Michael created hundreds of new civil cases it could often take a year or more to get a case to trial. 

And now, even when everything is going right, fate can intervene, Basford said. He noted that recently a criminal trial was about to begin when it had to be stopped. 

“If the defendant tests positive for COVID at the jail the case is going to be continued,” Basford said. 

It’s not just inmates who test positive, Basford and Anglin both said Thursday. Every office — whether it’s a private attorney, at the courthouse, or in the jail — faces issues when staff members either test positive or are required to quarantine when they are exposed to the virus. 

“I believe our chief judge has done everything within his power and discretion to keep our court system open and running,” Basford said. He added that prosecutors take a hard look at cases and try to only keep the worst suspects behind bars awaiting a trial date. 

“A lot of the people that are in jail now or have been there for a lengthy period of time are people who have been charged with serious crimes — attempted murder, abuse of children or trafficking in large amounts of drugs,” Basford said. “These are dangerous individuals.”

Meanwhile, civil trial lawyers and their clients are facing similar issues while they await justice. Hurricane Michael caused civil cases to triple in the area according to local attorney Larry Perry. And that backlog was made worse when the pandemic hit. 

Perry said he cautions clients to be prepared for a two-year wait for their cases to be resolved.

“It’s like the medical system,” he said. “It’s taxing on the legal system. It’s additional pressure for scheduling. It’s additional pressure time-wise.”

Meanwhile, civil attorneys are doing what they can to resolve their cases quickly. 

“We’re still moving our cases,” Perry said. “We’re not sitting around waiting for things to happen.”

The Sheriff’s Office isn’t waiting either. Anglin and Ford are in discussions with county leaders about a jail expansion. Anglin said the department is looking to build medium-security substance abuse dorms. He added that a high percentage of the inmates brought to the jail are there on low-level drug charges. 

“We started our COVID precautions in the jail in February of 2020,” Anglin recalled. “I would have never dreamed that almost two years later we would still be doing this. It’s kind of the new normal and I think we are going to be doing this for a while.”

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