Is CA sheriff right to refuse judge order releasing 1,800 inmates?


Fact Box

Kevin (No)

Although Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes claims the order 'puts our community at substantial risk,' his statement also indicates that some portion of the inmates in question are still awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crimes. And being exposed to a deadly disease wasn't part of the sentence. As the ACLU's Daisy Ramirez said in a statement, 'We must not forget the humanity of incarcerated people,' and putting their lives at risk is inhumane. Evidence shows that the imprisoned are 'four times more likely to test positive and two times more likely to die' from coronavirus infection.

The recent outbreak in Orange County jails led another ACLU representative, Jacob Reisberg, to refer to the facilities as 'f-ing deathtraps,' as new records are being set by numbers of both new cases and hospitalizations. The judge who ruled on the case noted the violation of inmates' rights, saying that actions by Sheriff Barnes showed 'deliberate indifference' for the risk to their lives. The judge made specific mention of holding facilities not allowing social distancing, failure to test staff and detainees on intake, and a lack of policies requiring the wearing of masks by staff who interact with inmates. Ramirez also pointed out that this measure, which was triggered by a lawsuit from the ACLU, aims to help the larger community by preventing the hospitals and medical staff from becoming 'totally overwhelmed.' An outbreak in the jails could also spread to the wider community from staff members who become exposed.

Bill (Yes)

California Sheriff Don Barnes is right to refuse to release 1,800 inmates from the Orange County Jail—those criminals are incarcerated for a reason; they are a threat to society. The medically vulnerable inmates that the judge wants released are dangerous people who are awaiting trial for the most serious crimes: 90 are charged with murder or attempted murder, and an additional 94 for child molestation. Orange County released some non-violent criminals earlier in the pandemic, and they have been repeat offenders 'at nearly three times the normal rate.' It's not hard to understand why Sheriff Barnes is reluctant to turn loose the most violent criminals in his jail.

The judge's decision to release inmates to shield them from COVID is misguided—most people who test positive for the illness experience only mild symptoms and rarely require hospitalization. The judge appears to have been influenced by COVID case numbers rather than hospitalizations or deaths, which are more reliable measures of the coronavirus's severity. The cumulative hospitalization rate for COVID is less than .28% (there are 278.7 hospitalizations per 100,000 population). Moreover, with an inmate survival rate for COVID of 99.23%, there is no reason to release dangerous criminals back into society. 

Rather than releasing these medically vulnerable (yet dangerous) inmates, the judge should consider other less extreme alternatives, such as separating them from the general jail population. In addition, restaurant-like partitions could be installed to ensure social distancing in the jail's common areas to reduce the possibility of transmission of the virus among the inmate population. Sheriff Barnes has announced he will appeal the judge's ill-advised decision to hand out get-out-of-jail-free cards to violent criminals.

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