FILE - Florida prison

Prisoner guard at Dade Correctional Institution in Miami.

(The Center Square) – With a pandemic induced backlog of 31,000 pending felony cases idling in Florida courts, the state's prison population has declined by 7,000 inmates since July, a new report said.

“As a result of the continuing pandemic, the courts have developed a backlog of pending felony cases (30,999) that is expected to take several years to work its way through to the prison population,” the Criminal Justice Estimating Conference (CJEC) report’s executive summary read. “At this time, they do not expect to return to full operating capacity until [fiscal year] 2021-22, with their backlog expected to take until the end of [fiscal year] 2023-24 to resolve itself.”

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady closed state circuit and county courts to in-person proceedings in March through June because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Canady since has adopted a phased approach. Judges can conduct some civil and criminal proceedings by telephone or video. Most courts recently resumed limited jury trials and grand jury proceedings, some in mid-October.

According to an Oct. 15 budget request, Florida’s court system projects it will accrue a pandemic induced backlog of nearly 1 million cases by July 1, ranging from divorce proceedings to death-penalty trials, that will require an additional $37 million over the next three years to accommodate.

Even with the additional funding, nearly 5,000 jury trials are projected to be delayed between now and July 1, according to the budget request.

The CJEC’s report calculated the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) will house 80,792 inmates at the end of this month – a decline of more than 19,000 from the 100,050 inmates in Florida’s prisons in June 2015; nearly 15,000 fewer than the 95,626 inmates in FDOC custody in June 2019; and almost 7,000 fewer state inmates than in June 2020.

By July 1, however, CJEC projected prison populations will inch upward as courts presumably whittle into backlogged cases. CJEC estimated 82,116 inmates will be in Florida prisons by July 1, an increase of nearly 1,400 over the next seven months.

The report forecast 86,463 inmates will be in Florida prisons in June 2022, 89,731 in June 2023 and 92,911 in June 2026 – an increase of more than 12,000 from the FDOC’s current population.

Another reason cited by analysts for a potential increase in state prison admissions is because county sheriffs are “tightly managing jail capacity,” meaning they’re releasing pretrial detainees more frequently than normal.

“An unknown number of future inmates will earn atypically low jail credits prior to sentencing and transfer to the state system,” the CJEC stated. “As conditions return to normal, the clearance of the backlog coupled with the reduced amount of accrued jail credits is expected to increase prison admissions and the resulting population over the forecast period.”

The CJEC is one of a series of data reviews conducted throughout the year, such as the Revenue Estimating Conference (REC), by economists and legislative analysts from various state departments and agencies.

Figures compiled and projections generated by the conferences are the numbers and data lawmakers will rely on when they convene committee meetings in January in anticipation of the 60-day legislative session, which begins March 3.

With Florida facing a projected $2.7 billion revenue shortfall this fiscal year, the FDOC, as the state’s largest agency and nation’s third-largest prison system, will be among departments targeted for spending cuts.

The FDOC’s $2.8 billion budget employs 23,000 people, including about 17,000 corrections officers, to house a projected 96,000 inmates and supervise nearly 166,000 probation offenders at more than 140 sites, including 43 prisons.