First inmates released from Pinellas jail

Early edition: Twenty-five inmates charged with lesser crimes have been released from Pinellas's crowded jail, the Times has learned.

Published April 26, 2007

Twenty-five inmates charged with misdemeanor crimes have been released from Pinellas County's chronically crowded jail, according to a list exclusively obtained by the Times.

Among those set free:

Willie B. Jones, 47, of St. Petersburg who spent nearly a month behind bars on a battery charge.

Michelle Erway, 40, a homeless woman in St. Petersburg charged with soliciting for prostitution. She spent eight days in custody.

Margaret Martinsen, 50, of Largo who was charged with criminal mischief. She spent three weeks in the jail.

Ronald Paul, 31, of Largo who spent four days in jail after being charged with exposing his sexual organs in Clearwater.

They were among the first inmates set free late last week after a court order empowered Sheriff Jim Coats to release inmates accused of misdemeanors and local ordinances violations, like having an open container of alcohol in public.

All 25 were accused of relatively minor offenses, including driving under the influence, battery, criminal mischief, prostitution and drug possession. For the most part, they were poor and remained in custody because they couldn't afford to post even the small amounts of bail. The 25 inmates were not released as one group, but on a case-by-case basis, officials said.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Chief Judge David Demers issued the authorization last week to free certain inmates, responding to a jail population hovering around 3,600 - 1,100 more than it was originally designed to house.

Under the policy, the inmates eligible first for release are those accused of misdemeanors or ordinance violations. If that doesn't provide enough relief, Coats can ask the court to consider freeing people accused of nonviolent felonies, such as retail theft and drug possession. Jail staff already has compiled a list of 30 inmates charged with nonviolent felonies.

And if the jail population is still above 3,300, the facility's modified capacity, the sheriff could set free inmates sentenced to the county jail who only have a short time left to serve.

Staff researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.