TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Gadsden County sheriff was accused Tuesday of allowing prisoners — including violent felons — out of jail without court permission for short periods so they could visit with family or meet girlfriends in motel rooms.
State Attorney Willie Meggs petitioned a circuit judge to find Sheriff Morris Young in contempt for allowing prisoners to be furloughed before they could post bond or finish sentences. He detailed more than 100 cases, including several prisoners released after being charged with or convicted of felonies.
Young angrily denied any wrongdoing and said Meggs is trying to sabotage him because he's black. Young said he has continued a furlough program that was in place before he took office and said it is within the law.
"In the state of Florida, you don't find many African-American sheriffs, so they've got their reasons," Young said in a phone interview. "Being the longest-serving African-American sheriff in Florida, this is why this is happening. This job ain't for a black man — being sheriff. It ain't supposed to happen."
Young was elected in 2004 as the first black sheriff in Florida's only county that has a population with a majority of African-American residents.
The furloughs came under scrutiny after an inmate in jail for failure to pay child support was allowed out. During the furlough, he was arrested and charged with domestic battery, according to Meggs' petition. He allegedly choked his wife and threatened to kill her with a wrench.
Meggs, who is white, detailed other cases, including a man charged with molesting a child under 12. The man was brought by a deputy to a local hotel where he had an encounter with the alleged victim's mother while the deputy waited in the parking lot, Meggs petition said.
In another case, a man convicted of felony gun charges and awaiting a transfer to a state prison was allowed to leave the jail with his father, a local city commissioner, according to Meggs.
Some of the prisoners were allowed to leave the jail unescorted by deputies; others were escorted. Off-duty deputies who escorted prisoners were often paid cash for their time by the prisoner's relatives or friends, according to Meggs.
Young said his predecessor allowed furloughs of up to 48 hours, but the program under his watch limited prisoners to eight hours of release. Prisoners are drug tested before they leave and when they return. And he said dangerous prisoners aren't allowed furloughs.
"Why would I clean the streets up and just let them go? I don't have a whole lot of crime in Gadsden County because I chose to be tough on crime. So why would I be lax on the jail?" Young said. "I just don't want somebody who would go out there and recommit a crime or be detrimental to the community to where it makes me look bad and get somebody hurt. We look at that."
He acknowledged that some inmates have returned with drugs or contraband, but said they've been charged with additional crimes.
Young also pointed out that his jail is routinely 65 to 75 percent overcapacity. He said he is doing his best to control the jail population in a county where he said a third of the residents have been arrested at some point and where there are thousands of outstanding arrest warrants.
Meggs doesn't see how the furlough program helps the situation.
"How the temporary release of inmates on a furlough for a few hours has any meaningful effect on jail overcrowding defies explanation," wrote Meggs, who wouldn't comment on the case, saying he would let the petition speak for itself.