Without a doubt, the coronavirus outbreak has forced many Americans to make decisions we never thought we would have to. Moms and Dads have to decide whether going to work to make money or taking vacation days will be better for their young ones. Small and large business owners are choosing whether to send their employees home to keep them safe or keep them at work where they can earn a living.
Similarly, city officials and law enforcement also have some tough choices to make. Should they keep inmates confined to cells where they cannot as easily escape the spreading disease or release them to the public, where they might cause even more harm?
For many of us, the answer to this dilemma is a simple one: keep them locked up. After all, they made a choice to break the law, and they should pay for it. At least in prison or jail, they have somewhat limited contact with the public who might be carrying the disease.
But as any good police officer or law official knows, these are people too, and as such, they have a right to live, even if it isn’t always freely. Besides, once the virus finds a way inside the jail system walls, it could quickly spread from one inmate to another in no time at all, while also infecting the officers charged with guarding them.
And that is precisely why police officials all over the nation have decided to release some prisoners or inmates, even if it’s temporary. It is essential to note that these aren’t just any prisoners. Most jurisdictions have decided only to release those who have been charged with “non-violent, low level” crimes such as theft or drug use/sales.
However, some choices, even made with best of intentions, turn out to be bad ones.
Joseph Edwards Williams is one of those. Williams, a 26-year-old man from Florida, was arrested on March 13 for possession of heroin and drug paraphernalia. As his crime demands, he was being incarcerated until his trial.
But when the coronavirus outbreak exploded in his state, officials, like those in many other states, decided that it would be best if he and some 100 other prisoners were released until the date of their trial to slow the spread of the virus.
Hillsborough Country Sheriff Chad Chronister said, “We want to protect our employees here. We want to protect the remainder of the jail population. We also feel these low-level, non-violent offenders will be better served at home with their families.”
And so, Williams was freed on March 19 at 8:02 in the morning, according to the online jail records.
Then on the evening of March 20, a mere day later, at 10:40 pm, Williams shot and killed a man.
CBS reported, “The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office confirms 26-year-old Joseph Edwards Williams was arrested on a warrant Monday night in Gibsonton. They say he is connected to a March 20 shooting homicide in the Progress Village area. Deputies responded that night to several 911 calls about gunshots fired near 81st Street South and Ash Avenue. A man was pronounced dead at the scene.”
So now, instead of just being charged with drug-related crimes, he gets felony firearm possession, resisting arrest, another heroin possession, and second-degree murder added to his rap sheet—that ought to make him feel better.
And I would bet the sheriff’s office is regretting their decision now too.
Sheriff Chronister said in a statement that “There is no question Joseph Williams took advantage of this health emergency to commit crimes while he was out of jail awaiting resolution of a low-level, non-violent offense. As a result, I call on the State Attorney to prosecute this defendant to the fullest extent of the law.”
He added that sheriffs such as himself, as well as prosecutors and judges, “are facing difficult decisions during this health crisis with respect to balancing public health and public safety.”
And I’m sure it isn’t an easy choice to make. Williams, as a non-violent, although repeat offender, likely gave no reason for officers to believe that he would take his crime up a level and commit murder.
This just happened to be a case where the wrong decision was made.