A man charged with aggravated kidnapping for ransom was the first inmate to petition for his release following a judge’s order to reduce the Orange County, California, jail population by half due to safety concerns over the spread of COVID-19, according to Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer.
Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson ordered Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes to reduce the inmate population in Orange County jails by 50 percent by Dec. 18 because of a COVID outbreak in the system, following a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of high-risk inmates.
Barnes has said he will refuse to comply with the order, and the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Dec. 15 unanimously voted to hire outside legal counsel to help the sheriff defend his position.
The DA identified Ezra Schley, 72, of Huntington Beach, as the first inmate to petition for release—on his own recognizance, without bail being paid—following the judge’s Dec. 11 order.
Schley is one of four defendants charged with kidnapping an Irvine woman from her apartment and holding her for two days in an attempt to extort money from the woman’s husband and mother-in-law. He is currently being held at the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana on $1 million bail, and faces a life sentence if convicted of all charges.
“These are hardcore criminals who are going to try everything they can to game the system so they can get out and commit more crimes,” DA Spitzer said in a Dec. 15 press release.
“The judge’s order is outrageous and I’m not going to allow Orange County and Southern California residents to be put at risk by the release of dangerous and violent criminals back into our communities.”
Schley’s attorney David Swanson said his client was requesting “bail reduction” because he needs heart surgery.
“He is vulnerable to get COVID and die in jail, so this is about the jail conditions are dangerous and my client needs to get out, so why can’t we reduce his bail a little bit,” Swanson said.
ACLU attorney Corene Kendrick called the DA’s news release “dangerously misleading,” and said the judge’s court order had nothing to do with Schley’s filing.
She said filings for recognizance happen “all the time, despite DA Spitzer’s ham-handed attempt to scare the public and link it to the Dec. 11 order that Sheriff Barnes create a release plan.”
The attorney cited the spreading outbreak within the jail system as justification for Barnes to act on the judge’s order right away. As of Dec. 15, 412 inmates were infected with the disease, according to the Sheriff’s Department, which is taking precautions by testing all inmates, isolating those who test positive, and quarantining others who might have been exposed.
“Unfortunately, given what we know about how the virus spreads, this is likely just the beginning unless Sheriff Barnes acts immediately to adhere to the Superior Court order and develop a plan to safely release people and create space for social distancing,” Kendrick said.
Sgt. Dennis Breckner told The Epoch Times that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is filing an appeal in court to have the judge’s decision overturned.
Each inmate was previously ordered by a judge to be held in the county jail, Breckner said. Judge Wilson’s order overturned the decisions of multiple judges.
“One fell swoop of a civil court judge doesn’t negate the orders by multiple criminal judges,” Breckner said.
Barnes told Fox News on Dec. 15 that his department had already released 1,400 low-level offenders since March to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“The only inmates remaining now are serious offenders,” Barnes said.
He said that of the 1,800 inmates ordered to be released, 700 are deemed “medically vulnerable”—but many of those inmates are being held for violent crimes such as murder, domestic violence, and child molestation.
“It’s an incredible order to be placed on me, and I have no intention of doing that, of releasing these individuals back in the community. I think they present a serious threat,” said Barnes.
According to the DA, Orange County jail inmates released before serving their full sentences or on $0 bail due to court orders committed new crimes—including auto theft, burglary, robbery, assault, weapons offenses, theft, and narcotics—at over triple the normal recidivism rate.
“The jail population has been reduced by more than 33 percent since the beginning of the pandemic in March,” Spitzer said. “There are more than 400 people in custody who have already been convicted or who are awaiting trial for murder or attempted murder. Now the ACLU is fighting to release people who have been convicted or are awaiting trial on felony charges that could send them to prison for the rest of their lives.”
Schley’s petition for release is scheduled to be heard on Dec. 23 at 9 a.m., at the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach.
The Board of Supervisors also voted Dec. 15 to sue the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to take convicted felons as required from the county’s jails, a process which has been slowed by the pandemic.
City News Service contributed to this report.