Orange County Sheriff Won’t Release Inmates, Despite Appeal Loss

Orange County Sheriff Won’t Release Inmates, Despite Appeal Loss
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes speaks at a press conference in Santa Ana, Calif., on Aug. 7, 2020. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Drew Van Voorhis

More than one-third of Orange County’s jail population was COVID-19 positive Dec. 30, but Sheriff Don Barnes said he’ll fight the latest orders to release 1,800 inmates.

Barnes was initially ordered Dec. 11 by an Orange County Supreme Court Judge to reduce the jail population by 50 percent. The sheriff responded to the order by saying the public would be put in danger if he complied, and filed an appeal with the court of appeal, which was denied Dec 29.

“I will be moving forward and submitting in accordance with a court order, a plan of what the impacts of those releases would be upon the public,” Barnes said during an online briefing Dec. 30. “I still have significant issues with the impacts of what this might entail, and I will stress those to the court in our response.”

Barnes said his department has always had a plan for responding to COVID-19 cases within the jail systems, including temperature checks, robust quarantining, and by using personal protective equipment.  The Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) has also facilitated the early release of low-risk and medically-vulnerable inmates.

An OCSD spokesman said the inmates would not be released following the denied appeal.

“No, not yet,” Sgt. Dennis Breckner told The Epoch Times. “Right now we’re reviewing what our legal obligation is here, and then we'll move forward… We are taking the time to challenge the most recent ruling and we’re going to see what we can do, because obviously as the sheriff’s ultimate responsibility is people’s safety.”

It would be unsafe to release the inmates into Orange County communities, he added.

“In our opinion, the inmates that we have currently in custody are dangerous...and they present a danger to the community and so for that reason we’re going to do whatever we can to appeal the decision and of course try to keep these inmates in custody,” Breckner said.

Barnes was initially ordered by an Orange County Supreme Court Judge to release 50 percent of the region’s inmates. The sheriff responded to the Dec. 11 order by saying the public would be put in danger if he complied, and filed an appeal with the court of appeal, which was denied.

The American Civil Liberties Union has advocated for the prisoners’ release.

“They have ankle monitors,” ACLU attorney Corene Kendrick told City News Service in early December.

Orange County has a “very robust” home-confinement and monitoring program, she said.

“It’s not rocket science on how to do it,” Kendrick said.

Currently, there are approximately 1,200 individuals who are COVID-positive, most of whom are in general housing, Barnes said during the conference.  As of early Dec. 30, the county’s total inmate population was 3,420, meaning about 35 percent of inmates had the virus.

“I want to stress that … number appears much higher because we’re testing every inmate in our care,” Barnes said. “The vast majority of those inmates are asymptomatic and don’t have any symptoms of being ill.”

Since March, there have been seven inmates hospitalized due to COVID exposure, and one inmate who died. According to Barnes, the individual who died never would have been released under the 50 percent reduction order anyway, due to rape and murder charges he was booked on.

“Everybody who I could release has been released from the jail, who presents...a limited or minimal risk,” Barnes said. “Those who remain in the jail present a significant risk of very heinous crimes they are alleged to have committed, or been convicted of committing or present a risk to the public, if I’m forced to release them back into the community.”

Drew Van Voorhis is a California-based daily news reporter for The Epoch Times. He has been a journalist for six years, during which time he has broken several viral national news stories and has been interviewed for his work on both radio and internet shows.
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