Florida Keys court may soon be back in session – if inmates return from storm exile

After being evacuated because of Hurricane Irma, hundreds of jail inmates from the Florida Keys may soon be returned to the islands. First order of business: court hearings to help clear the jail of inmates facing petty crimes, such as drinking in public.

If those hearing go through as planned early next week, it’ll give court staff, lawyers and judges some seven days to regroup amid widespread electricity outages, lack of cell phone coverage and clean-up efforts.

“For humanitarian reasons, we want to get this going as soon as possible. There are people in custody whose sentences could be up,” said Key West Public Defender Robert Longwood.

Getting Monroe County’s criminal-justice system back in action remains a daunting logistical challenge on an island chain spread out over 110 miles – and with one major road clogged with clean-up crews, returning residents and relief workers.

As Hurricane Irma bore down on the Keys, 466 inmates were evacuated from Monroe jails, including the main detention center on Stock Island. The storm came ashore on Cudjoe Key on Sept 10, battering the island chain and wrecking boats, homes and businesses throughout Monroe County.

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Debris from Hurricane Irma lays on the side of the Overseas Highway in Islamorda in the Florida Keys, September 11, 2017.

CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

For people arrested after the storm, there have been some initial court hearings held via phone from the main jail.

Officials considered holding hearings in Palm Beach County, possibly with specially appointed judges, but decided to plan for next week with the return of the inmates. The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office hopes to have them returned by the weekend, if the jails have power, sewer, water and food ready to go.

“We have to have the jail in the appropriate condition for them to return,” said Monroe Sheriff’s spokeswoman Becky Herrin.

The Key West state courthouse suffered some water damage but should re-open only to employees next Monday, according to a courts spokeswoman.

The next day, on Tuesday, the main jail will be the tentative site of a misdemeanor “plea” calendar, with a docket of felony cases the following day.

Many of those misdemeanor defendants are regulars, mostly homeless who flock to Key West and were arrested for trespassing or drinking in public in the weeks before Hurricane Irma hit. Between 50 and 60 could be eligible for release under plea deals or for time they have already served, said Longwood, the Public Defender.

“We have a large population of repeat offenders for the same crimes,” said Longwood, whose staff has been in touch with inmates in Palm Beach and their families.

The rest of the week also gives prosecutors and public defenders time to return home, and get working power and Internet in offices spread out throughout the islands.

“We were every fortunate, there wasn’t really any damages to our officers,” said Monroe Chief Assistant State Attorney Mark Wilson.