SANTA ANA (CNS)—A Superior Court judge Dec. 11 ordered Sheriff Don Barnes to reduce Orange County's jail population by half to allow for more social distancing among inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson issued the order in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of inmates, some of whom have been released, who said they were particularly at risk due to underlying health conditions.
Barnes said his department was "evaluating the order, its impacts and our options for appeal.''
"If the order stands, it will result in the release of more than 1,800 inmates,'' Barnes said. "Many of these inmates are in pretrial status for, or have been convicted of, violent crimes and will be released back into the community. This order puts our community at substantial risk and does not take into account the impact on the victims of these crimes.''
Wilson said Barnes has options beyond unconditionally releasing inmates.
"They have ankle monitors,'' ACLU attorney Corene Kendrick said.
Orange County has a "very robust'' home-confinement and monitoring program, Kendrick said.
"It's not rocket science on how to do it,'' Kendrick said.
Wilson chided the county's attorneys for failing to respond to the allegations from the inmates about the lack of social distancing in the jail system.
The ruling came as Barnes wrangles with a new outbreak of COVID-19 in the jails this week. Barnes announced on Dec. 10 there were 102 inmates infected with COVID-19. That number increased to 138 on Dec. 11. Of those, 27 are newly-booked inmates and 111 are in general population.
Austin Ambriz, one of the inmates who tested positive this week, was on trial for murder in Brea and closing arguments scheduled for Dec. 10 had to be rescheduled for Jan. 4.
Kendrick said it was critical to reduce the jail population now at a time when the county's hospitals are bulging with patients, setting daily records for hospitalizations and intensive care unit patients.
When sheriffs across the state were ordered earlier this year to reduce jail populations to help curb the spread of coronavirus, "it's not like crime soared,'' Kendrick said.
"The point is, and I think the judge got this, there's a bigger public safety risk of having an outbreak of COVID-19 in the jail system when the county's hospitals are already at the breaking point with skyrocketing infections,'' Kendrick said.
"You really don't want a bunch of incarcerated people coming into the hospitals. It's a giant production. Everyone has to come with an officer. It becomes a strain on the community hospitals that is not needed.''