Judge Orders Early Release For Inmates Exposed To Virus

Kirk H. Nakamura, Assistant Presiding Judge

“This order is extremely reasonable” – Superior Court Judge Kirk Nakamura 

Early release begins in Cal. jails after more than 100 inmates exposed to virus

| PLUS: Texas Governor Says ‘Not So Fast’

Three inmates who were housed in the same module in Orange County’s Central Men’s Jail have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Orange County Register, March 28, 2020

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Some Orange County jail inmates will be released 10 days early to help stop the spread of COVID-19 after three Central Jail inmates tested positive this week.

Sheriff Don Barnes said nonviolent offenders and those medically vulnerable will be eligible for early release. Barnes said:

“The decision for early release was made collaboratively and is absolutely necessary to stop the spread of this virus and preserve lifesaving medical resources. During this unprecedented moment, with substantial pressure on our health system, we are taking action to protect those in our custody, reduce the risk to our correctional personnel, and ultimately preserve our mission to keep the public safe.”

The infected inmates were housed in adjacent barracks that each held up to 68 people — meaning as many as 136 inmates and jail workers were exposed.

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun said inmates in the two barracks are among the 141 quarantined in another part of the jail system.

Judge gives order

Superior Court Presiding Judge Kirk Nakamura granted an advisory order Friday giving the sheriff leeway to move quickly on the early releases if the health situation in local lockup continued to deteriorate.

“This order is extremely reasonable,” Nakamura said.

Under the court order, nonviolent and less-serious offenders with less than 60 days left to serve would be eligible for release. There are about 750 inmates who fit that description. For now, Barnes decided to release those who fall under the 10-day guideline.

Union concerns for jailers

Meanwhile, Orange County jail workers are concerned that they are susceptible to the virus. Sheriff’s union President Tom Dominguez said there is not enough protective gear to go around and no procedures in place to decontaminate them once they are removed. But Dominguez added that neither first-responders nor health-care workers have enough protective gear either.

“We’re all screwed,” one jail worker said Friday. “Everybody and anybody has been exposed.”

Barnes acknowledged that he had the power to unilaterally release the inmates early, but indicated he wanted to work together with the court.

On Wednesday afternoon, Sheriff Barnes told reporters that he had no immediate plans to release prisoners early, noting that jail facilities could accommodate about 100 inmates in isolation if needed.

That changed with the discovery that three inmates so far have tested positive for the coronavirus, Barnes said during Friday’s hearing.

“We were managing this very, very well until a couple days ago, when we had the first exposure,” Barnes told the judge.

Referring to the early release plan, the sheriff said: “We’ve come to a good place that mitigates the risk to the public.”

At the Friday hearing, sheriff’s Cmdr. Joseph Balicki testified that the jails are currently unable to keep the county health-care-mandated 6-foot separation between inmates at their current capacity. There is an 18 to 20 percent vacancy rate at the moment, the commander said, but since some of those are smaller modules and some are larger barracks, that doesn’t reflect the actual number of usable beds.

“We are trying to make as much space as possible,” Balicki told the judge. “The concern is if staff becomes affected as well and we have to have staff members go home, that will impact our ability to manage the inmate population.”

D.A. reverses position

The judge noted that District Attorney Todd Spitzer had previously written a letter to the court opposing early release. But a D.A. representative present for Friday’s hearing said the office did not oppose the sheriff’s plan.

In an interview Friday, Spitzer cited concerns raised by the union representing jail deputies and other law enforcement workers following news that an inmate had tested positive for the coronavirus as a turning point in the early release discussion.

With two other inmates since testing positive for the virus, Spitzer said it is clear that a shutdown of the larger, dorm-style jail barracks is needed and early release taken into consideration. Spitzer said his office has worked with the Sheriff’s Department to ensure those convicted of certain felonies are not eligible for early release.

“There is a comprehensive list of serious and violent felonies, sex crimes and immigration holds that are not eligible,” Spitzer said.

The district attorney added that he believed the Sheriff’s Department is doing a “phenomenal job” of dealing with a difficult situation.

Normally, prosecutors would oppose releasing inmates early, believing it would undermine the criminal justice system, Spitzer said. But with the virus already impacting the jails, it’s necessary to take health concerns into consideration, the D.A. said.

“We aren’t operating under anything close to normal,” Spitzer said of the current situation. “No one wants to early-release inmates, but (the sheriff’s department is) between a rock and a hard place and are doing the best they can and they always have the public’s safety in mind.”

Public defender applauds move

Public Defender Sharon Petrosino applauded Nakamura’s actions toward early release and not jailing some arrestees.

“This is all really good stuff,” Petrosino said. “It protects everybody in the system in a very difficult crisis.”

In Los Angeles County, Sheriff Alex Villanueva has already begun releasing some inmates early.

Court officials at both the state and local level previously raised the prospect of early release for some inmates.

In an advisory late last week, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye — whose emergency orders have allowed the various Superior Court systems to suspend most nonemergency functions — suggested that local jurisdictions “identify detainees with less than 60 days in custody to permit early release, with or without supervision or community-based treatment.” Source. 

As local officials in Texas shrink jail populations due to coronavirus, Gov. Abbott blocks release of some inmates who can’t pay bail

Mar 29, 2020

Texas Tribune – As the new coronavirus continues to spread in Texas’ two biggest county jails, Gov. Greg Abbott has made it harder for thousands of inmates to get out of local lockups.

In an executive order Sunday, Abbott barred inmates accused or previously convicted of violent crimes from being released from jails without paying bail. Those with the same criminal history or the same charges can still walk free if they have access to cash — a distinction that bail reform attorneys argue makes the order unconstitutional.

The sweeping move — which suspends a swath of the state law on bail — comes as advocates and local governments across the country work to minimize population in lock-ups, where the risk of the new coronavirus is particularly high given poor sanitary conditions and close quarters. The virus has already reached the Harris [Houston-area] and Dallas County jails, as well as Texas prisons and a juvenile detention center.

Abbott’s order came the same day that Harris County announced the first confirmed case in its jail, where some 30 inmates are showing symptoms of the virus and as many as 500 others may have been exposed.

Abbott said at a news conference Sunday that “releasing dangerous criminals makes the state even less safe… and slows our ability to respond to the disaster caused by COVID-19.”

The announcement comes as Harris County officials are working to release hundreds of inmates because of concerns about the virus in the county’s jail — efforts that have drawn opposition from state leaders.