California State Prison System Criticized for Early Inmate Releases

August 13, 2020 Updated: August 17, 2020

The California state prison system is burdening local governments by leaving more inmates in county jails, according to Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) hasn’t received prisoners from local jails in five months, Barnes said during an Aug. 12 teleconference held with District Attorney Todd Spitzer and state Sen. Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar) to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the county’s criminal justice system.

“I’m still sitting on 300 state prison-sentence individuals that the state will not take from me, nor will they take from the other 57 sheriffs throughout the state,” said Barnes. “They’ve closed the front door coming into the state prison system, and opened the double doors to the back, and started letting people out.”

California state prison officials say over 17,000 prisoners have been released since March 11, including over 8,000 released early as part of a direct initiative to slow the spread of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus. To be eligible for early release, an inmate must have 365 days or less remaining to serve, a nonviolent conviction, and no requirement to register as a sex offender.

The CDCR reported Aug. 12 that there are 917 incarcerated persons with active cases of COVID-19 out of nearly 97,000 people incarcerated statewide—the lowest number imprisoned in California in 30 years. “The last time that number was below 100,000 was in 1990, when CA’s overall population was 10 million less,” the CDCR said in a July 30 tweet.

Orange County accounts for roughly 10 percent of the state’s inmate population, according to Barnes. Out of the more than 17,000 prisoners released, Barnes said it’s safe to estimate 10 percent of them will recidivate or relapse and find their way back to county jails.

Those who violate the terms of their release but don’t commit a new crime are sent back to the county jail, not the state prison, he said.

“It’s really setting us up for a lot of challenges that aren’t our responsibility to address. It’s really just abrogating the responsibility of state prison responsibilities on the local government to deal with, and that’s not okay with me,” Barnes said.

Representatives for the CDCR and the governor’s office did not comment to The Epoch Times prior to publication.

County District Attorney Todd Spitzer called it “incredibly upsetting and frustrating” to watch the CDCR release thousands of prisoners, adding the release could be fueled by the motivation of some to defund the police and eliminate jails altogether.

“They think there is a different way to do it, but they also have an agenda,” Spitzer said. “COVID just became a convenient excuse to let the prison gates open and let thousands of inmates out early.”

Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, in July defended the early release of inmates as necessary for public health and safety. He said the early releases are reducing overcrowding in state prison systems, effectively reducing the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

“Too many people are locked up for too long by a bloated system that spreads poor health across California communities up and down the state,” he said in a July 10 press release.

“California must release people who are unnecessarily incarcerated and transform our safety priorities, so the core needs of communities that allow them to be safe are met and the number of people sent to prison in the first place is reduced.”

Barnes said the pandemic forced the sheriff’s department to release low-level offenders early after not having done so in over a decade, and that the department plans to return to original protocols once the spread of the disease has mitigated.

“We’re going to go back to ‘no more early releases,’ and we’ll put people back in jail and hold them responsible for any violations of law that they are held to,” he said.

By following strict adherence to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for correctional institutions—which include having everyone in jail wear a mask and following hygiene protocols—Barnes said county jails were effectively able to reduce a 220-case count to single digits in the early stages of the pandemic.

“It was a tremendous success,” said Barnes.

As part of an effort to control the spread of COVID-19, every inmate in the jail has a radio frequency identification (RFID) card that they use to scan in and out. Tracking the RFID cards allows officials to know how inmates interact, in case contact tracing becomes necessary.

All new inmates who are booked into the jail are placed in a 14-day quarantine. Any inmates showing symptoms are also placed in isolation for 14 days. Barnes said there are currently 600 newly booked inmates under quarantine, adding the county jail has 33 active cases out of its nearly 3,500 inmate population.

The department’s handling of the disease “shows that through the right precautionary measures and the right mitigation strategies, you can control [COVID-19] and bring it back down and effectively eliminate it over time,” Barnes said.

Update: Dana Simas, the CDCR press secretary, told The Epoch Times in an Aug. 13 email: “CDCR has been almost continuously closed to intake since March 24 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We understand the burden this places on local law enforcement resources and we thank them for their partnership as we all work to address this public health emergency. The department is actively looking at ways in which we can safely reopen intake to alleviate pressure on local resources.”

H.D. Palmer, a deputy director in the state Department of Finance, in an Aug. 13 email also told The Epoch Times, “The Governor and his administration have committed to reimbursing sheriffs for the costs of housing inmates who are not being admitted to CDCR because of the temporary suspension of intake due to COVID-19.

“We have already set aside $31.2 million in state General Fund for this purpose—and will likely be allocating more. We authorized the State Controller’s Office to issue the first payments to counties last week.

“This initial payment, totaling $14.4 million, covers the costs incurred by counties for housing inmates from the beginning of the suspension of intake on March 25th through June 30th. Of that total … Orange County received just over $541,000 reflecting 103 inmate “holds” during this three-month period. We intend to issue subsequent payments in the coming months to cover costs incurred by counties since June 30th.”