Jail Releases

Virus makes jailers do the unthinkable: Open the gates

By R.E. Graswich

The court order runs three pages. The words would be astonishing in normal times. Headlined “Order authorizing Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department to grant release,” it explains why jail gates must swing open and allow almost 400 inmates to walk free.

Leaving no corner of society untouched, the coronavirus crisis has forced jailers across California to evaluate thousands of inmates for early release. The law-abiding public may suffer the consequences in the coming weeks, but the goal is sensible, realistic and inevitable.

Signed by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman, the order follows similar actions in other counties where the fear of spreading COVID-19 among staff and inmates exceeds the practicality of forcing inmates to complete their sentences.

Bowman tailored the order to fit specific categories of convicts. It lists groups of inmates who aren’t allowed early exits: sex offenders, people who committed domestic violence or drove drunk or intoxicated with drugs.

The targets for early release are inmates with fewer than 60 days left on their sentences. Prisoners doing their final 10 days are free to go. Inmates with between 11 and 60 days are being turned loose but required to enroll in the sheriff’s work release program.

The numbers are far more dramatic in larger counties. Los Angeles, which holds an average of 17,000 inmates each night, released about 1,700. L.A. County is releasing another cohort of about 2,600 inmates over age 60 awaiting trial or with bail less than $50,000. People facing charges of violence or with violent histories will not be released. Other counties will do the same.

Staff health and safety are primary reasons for the early releases. If the pandemic takes hold inside the confined quarters of a jail, it will be difficult to stop and quickly spread to deputies and the public. Fewer inmates give the sheriff the opportunity to create distance behind the gates and slow or at least manage the spread of coronavirus.

The situation is another paradox of the health crisis. In our scramble to create social distance, we are restoring our proximity to people who were forcibly removed from society. Judges and jailers have no choice but to open the gates for some and hope for the best.


R.E. Graswich can be reached at regraswich@icloud.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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