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‘The public should be in a panic’: CA officials slam court order to release criminals over covid

Sheriff Don Barnes is ringing alarm bells in Orange County, CA while fighting a Superior Court order aimed at slashing the population of inmates in the county by half due to the coronavirus. He says, “The public should be in a panic.” The ruling is ostensibly an attempt to achieve proper social distancing and prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

“These aren’t low-lying offenders,” said Sheriff Don Barnes of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. “These are people in for very serious offenses, like murder, attempted murder, and domestic violence.”

“The public should be in a panic and they should be concerned about this release,” stated Barnes.

The judge gave Barnes a deadline of December 30 to come up with a list of inmates to be released. Barnes said he has no intention of creating that list.

“I have no intention of releasing any of these individuals from my custody,” Barnes said. “We are going to file an appeal and we’re going to fight it and if the judge has any intent of releasing any one of these individuals, he will have to go through line by line, name by name, and tell me which ones he is ordering released.”

The ruling is in response to an April lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in an effort to protect disabled and medically vulnerable people at the Orange County Jail.

In the order, Judge Peter Wilson wrote that Barnes’ “deliberate indifference to the substantial risk of serious harm from COVID-19 infection to … medically vulnerable people in [his] custody violates their rights.”

“The uncontested facts found here include that conditions in the jail do not permit proper social distancing, there is no mandatory testing of staff or asymptomatic detainees after intake, and no strictly enforced policy of requiring masks for all staff interaction with inmates,” he wrote.

“Public safety does not just mean crime,” added Jacob Reisberg with the ACLU. “Public safety also means, is there a hospital bed open if you get sick? And if there’s a massive outbreak in the jail, which this de-population order is trying to avoid, there will not be hospital capacity in Orange County for people on the outside who get COVID.”

Last Monday, there were zero cases in the jails. Then the sheriff announced an outbreak with 138 cases Friday which jumped to 416 by Monday.

The recent outbreak caused Reisberg to call the jails “fu—– deathtraps,” on Twitter Monday. The sheriff argued the high number of infections was because the jail was testing everyone, even those who were asymptomatic.

Barnes notes that inmates at times may be mixing with the general public outside the jails.

“We have inmates who are participating in different practices. Either going to medical appointments or going to court or meeting with their attorneys. These people are all from the general public and we know there’s a surge within the general public.”

District Attorney Todd Spitzer, who is also opposed to court-ordered inmate reduction, said that the outbreak at the jails reflects a recent surge in the county.

Health officials in Orange County stated that new records for coronavirus cases and hospitalizations were set on Monday. More than 3,250 COVID-19 cases were reported on Monday, which brings the total number of infections to 105,764.

“Why does anybody think that what’s going on in our jails is not gonna be a mirror image of what’s already happening on the outside?” Spitzer said. “The numbers in the jail are not out of control or inflated as compared to what’s going on outside of our jails.”

This order will allow for the release of more than 1,800 prisoners. Barnes and Spitzer believe that would create more crime and victimize more people. Data from the DA’s office shows that low-level offenders released early or on $0 bail during the pandemic have committed crimes at nearly three times the normal rate.

“There’s no doubt it would jeopardize public safety because these are some of the worst of the worst,” Spitzer said.

The ACLU and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department were ordered to file a joint status report of compliance no later than Jan. 6.

“The court’s decision to alleviate the pressure on the jail by depopulating will help prevent the medical infrastructure — in the jail and in the surrounding community — from becoming totally overwhelmed,” Daisy Ramirez, jail conditions and policy coordinator at the ACLU of Southern California, said in a statement. “This order recognizes that we must not forget the humanity of incarcerated people, and they should not be put in mortal danger.”

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