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Get-out-of-jail-free card: COVID-19

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Inmates in San Mateo County jail

Inmates stay six feet apart in a San Mateo County jail. (San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office)

DUBLIN, Calif. (KRON) — For thousands of people who were living in jail cells at the start of 2020, COVID-19 was a get-out-of-jail free card, leading directly to their early release and freedom back into San Francisco Bay Area communities.

Advocates campaigning to empty every cell believe that jails are petri dishes for the highly-contagious virus. Law enforcement officers interviewed by KRON4 expressed a wide range of beliefs on the controversial subject, some agreeing with advocates and others dissenting.

Since the coronavirus began spreading in California, state prison and county jail officials have been continuously coordinating mitigation tactics, including two major steps: releasing inmates and letting newly-arrested criminals go without booking them into jail.

Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern sent a letter to all local police departments requesting that officers on patrol cite and release any arrestee who does not compromise public safety.

At the county’s sprawling Santa Rita Jail, more than 800 inmates have been released since the coronavirus outbreak began. The jail population dropped from 2,597 as of March 1, to 1,745 as of April 23. The virus has spread between inmates within the jail, with a total of 33 confirmed cases. Of the 33, eight inmates are currently being treated for COVID-19, and 24 have recovered. One inmate who tested positive was released from custody while still sick with the virus.

Balancing Act

Sgt. Ray Kelly said the Sheriff’s Office is faced with a unique balancing act during the outbreak. On the one side, they must keep the public safe from potentially violent offenders who are a threat to society. On the other side, they need to protect jail populations from the risks of COVID-19.

A suspected East Bay car thief named Rocky Music took advantage of the new cite-and-release protocol over the weekend. Oakland police officers arrested Music while he was driving a stolen car, and he was immediately released on court-ordered zero bail. Less than an hour later, Music walked to the Dublin BART station, carjacked a victim, and drove to San Ramon where he attempted a second carjacking, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Music ran on foot and was caught by a Dublin police K-9. This time, Music was booked into the Santa Rita Jail, where he remained incarcerated as of Friday afternoon.

Some inmates who received a coronavirus get-out-of-jail-free card have already committed new crimes and are back behind bars.

“We have re-arrested several individuals. They have since come back into custody on new cases. We have had people get out, and obviously, didn’t want to use the time to shelter-in-place,” Kelly said.

“Those numbers have not been overwhelming; it’s not a high percent rate. They have been dealt with accordingly and they are back in custody,” Kelly said.

Protesters calling themselves “Ride on Santa Rita,” drove from Oakland to Dublin last week demanding that District Attorney Nancy O’Malley and Sheriff Greg Ahern release all inmates. “Shut down Santa Rita Jail and put our money toward housing, food, and healing. A jail sentence shouldn’t be a death sentence,” protesters wrote on Twitter.

Where is the safest place from coronavirus?

A big question being discussed between law enforcement officials is: Are mentally ill and substance addicted people safer inside jail, or outside?

San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos said, “As we release inmates, our Program Services Unit is working fulltime on finding resources for these individuals as many of them suffer from addiction and mental health issues. This is difficult as service providers and non-profits who support our released inmates are also struggling with issues associated with the pandemic.”

Similar to Alameda County, protesters in San Mateo County organized a “Ride on San Mateo” jails, with an emphasis on ending transfers to federal immigration detention centers.

Protesters wrote on Twitter, “Sheriff Bolanos continues to voluntarily collaborate with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) during a pandemic. @SMCSheriff must stop all ICE notifications and transfers from San Mateo County jails or risk people’s lives to serious illness or even death.”

Bolanos clarified that there have been zero cases of COVID-19 in his county’s jails.

Bolanos wrote in a news release issued Thursday, “Working with the District Attorney’s Office, Probation, and the Private Defender, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office has critically looked at those in our custody to determine which individuals may be suitable for early release. In so doing, the Sheriff’s Office has strived to comply with the law, while balancing any risk of continued incarceration against the risk to public safety when making its decisions regarding releases. Of the more than 135 inmates released due to the order of the Judicial Council of California, no information was passed on to ICE due to the fact that their sentences were not finished.”

Seventy-four percent less people were booked into jail in March compared to February, and the inmate population has been reduced by 47 percent. There are currently 257 inmates in the Maguire Correctional Facility and 266 inmates in the Maple Street Correctional Center.

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