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The number of people facing murder charges in Leon County has doubled since 2019

Yellow police tape says "Do Not Cross."
David von Diemar

Leon County’s jail is more 80 percent full. That’s set off alarms for local policy makers who say it’s time to start looking into ways to reduce the population or consider expanding the space. Part of the problem comes from a backlog created when trials were paused during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, but state attorney Jack Campbell said the growth is also due to an increase in murder cases.

The number of people in Leon County’s jail who are facing murder charges more than doubled between 2019 and 2021. That follows a national trend. According to a New York Times analysis, murders rose by more than 30 percent in that same time frame. In Leon County, State Attorney Jack Campbell said that rise is driven largely by drug-related crime.

“Whether we like it or not, I have 130 people in the county jail right now who are on murder charges and like I say, the number one dynamic of that is drug rip-off and that’s just a reflection of where we are in our community,” Campbell said.

Campbell said it’s increasingly common for people to meet up with strangers for drug exchanges.

“As you know, technology has changed, and we live in a cell-phone world. And just like they can swipe left and swipe right to try to find romance they will also go on the internet to try to find marijuana and they meet people for the first time,” Campbell said.

He said that’s what officials believe happened in the case of MaKayla Bryant, who was shot and killed in January of this year.

“We had a beautiful FAMU cheerleader whose total death sentence was because she and her girlfriend decided to buy marijuana and she is dead, and I will prosecute that as a murder,” Campbell said. “But what started the ball rolling is that she, most likely, decided to buy marijuana from somebody she had never met before. And they knew she would have money and most of the time when they’re having these interludes they come with firearms and that gun play leads to death.”

More murder suspects means more people spending more time in the jail.

People charged with murder are typically not transferred to a prison until they are convicted, and murder cases take longer. Campbell said defendants ask for an average of 11 continuances per case. Commissioner Brian Welch said he thinks its time for the community to start getting used to the idea that eventually the county will need to expand the jail.

“I’m very worried about the perception that we are building a jail to lock up more people."
Nick Maddox

“The jail population you would have to expect is going to grow as a percentage of the larger populating growing, so as Leon County builds more houses because we need more houses, we’re going to need more beds in the jail and that’s just a reality,” Welch said. “I think also as Leon County’s dynamics change, you’re going to see different types of crime. You’re going to see more violent crime and violent criminals are going to be in jail longer.”

Commission Nick Maddox said he doesn’t like the sound of that.

“I’m very worried about the perception that we are building a jail to lock up more people. You know when you talk about increasing size that’s the perception that goes out there…I would like for us to really send a message that we’re doing everything we can to lower the population, so we are below that 80 percent so we’re not doing much in the way of building additional cells,” Maddox said.

During a recent meeting commissioners said they’d like to use as many alternatives to incarceration as possible to help manage the jail population. County officials say very few low-level offenders are in the jail. Right now 97 percent of the detainees there are people who have been charged with a felony.

Commissioners have agreed to direct staff to include funding for the coming fiscal year to hire a consultant to look into options for reducing the jail population or increasing space.

A report released last year by the Leon County Sheriff’s Office noted most of the offenders and victims of gun violence are Black men and boys between 15 and 24-years old. Recently the city and county agreed to fund the creation of a local men and boys council that will provide case management and direct services to people it believes may be at-risk for committing crimes.

Follow @Regan_McCarthy

Regan McCarthy is the Assistant News Director for WFSU Public Media. Before coming to Tallahassee, Regan graduated with honors from Indiana University’s Ernie Pyle School of Journalism. She worked for several years for NPR member station WFIU in Bloomington, Ind., where she covered local and state government and produced feature and community stories.

Phone: (850) 645-6090 | rmccarthy@fsu.edu

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