By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE Fla. (Reuters) - A Florida sheriff accused of contempt of court for releasing prisoners for brief furloughs from jail hit back on Wednesday saying the case is racially motivated.
State Attorney Willie Meggs asked a circuit court judge on Tuesday to cite Gadsden County Sheriff Morris Young for contempt of court for allowing inmates to leave jail, many without escort.
Gadsden, in north Florida, is 55 per cent black, the state's only county with a majority black population, according to the latest census.
In his court petition Meggs, who is white, said Young routinely allowed prisoners to visit their families or enjoy brief respites from the county jail. In one case, Meggs alleged, an off-duty deputy escorted a man accused of lewd behavior with a child to meet his girlfriend – the child’s mother – at a motel for a private visit.
Meggs outlined 20 cases to Circuit Judge Barbara Hobbs and attached a jail log listing 92 other inmates who were allowed to leave. He said some inmates were in for violent offenses, many were being held without bond and that several came back with illegal contraband.
Meggs wrote that “inmates have been allowed to go to family cookouts and to local hotel rooms, where they have had private encounters with members of the opposite sex.”
Young said inmates are carefully selected for furloughs. He said "restorative justice" helps them maintain their ties with family and the community.
“I really think it’s racially motivated,” said Young, one of only a handful of black sheriffs in Florida. “It’s character assassination ... I’ve done a good job as an African-American sheriff in an African-American county, to rid the streets of crime.”
Young said his white predecessor, W.A. Woodham, had a similar furlough policy in the rural county about 20 miles west of the state capital.
“In the 34 years, I don’t think he ever received anything like this from the State Attorney’s Office.”
Meggs’ office declined comment, beyond what he wrote in the 16-page petition to the circuit court.
(Editing by David Adams and Bill Trott)