L.A. Sheriff: Inmate release effective, but possible surge in crime ahead

The Los Angeles County Sheriff told FOX 11 that his decision to release over 4,000 nonviolent inmates from county jail has been effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, however, he has concerns about a potential future surge of crime as a result of so many inmates being released.

In an interview with FOX 11 on Monday, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said that he released 25% of the county inmate population, which equates to 4,276 nonviolent inmates.“We were faced with a choice, if we left the jail system fully populated and overpopulated then the pandemic is a lot easier to sweep through the jail system and jeopardize everyone’s safety,” Villanueva said.

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Villanueva told FOX 11 that LASD was the first Sheriff’s department in the country to begin the early release of inmates, which they began on February 28th.LASD focused on releasing nonviolent criminals in pre-trial detention, or those who were about to finish their sentences within 30 to 60 days.75% of the jail population, including the most violent, are still locked up behind bars.“We have approximately 1,200 murder suspects currently in jail, that’s greater than the entire population of some jail systems,” Villanueva said.

“There’s a point we can’t go past without putting in danger the community’s safety so we had to balance the needs of the jail versus the community’s safety.”Despite stats showing that violent crime has been down across the board recently, the Sheriff said he fears it may not stay that way for long.“We just have to be hyper-vigilant because that pendulum can eventually swing in the opposite direction,” he said.

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Specifically, Villanueva worries about a potential surge in crime following the pandemic, with thousands of inmates now on LA’s streets.“What’s going to happen is some of them are not going to go back to court, they’re gonna go to warrants to speak, for failure to appear,” Villaneuva said. “People who are not in jail are losing their jobs, much less those that didn’t have a job, to begin with, and are out on the streets, we’re now adding to the mix, it’s uncharted territory that we’re headed into.”

An inmate's hands peer out from inside a jail cell


Sheriff Villanueva said overall, the release policy has worked. Out of an inmate population that began at 17,000, only 11 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus. However, one of LASD’s custody assistant’s at Central Men’s Jail in downtown LA is now on life support after contracting the virus.

FOX 11 asked Villanueva to respond to Angelenos who may be concerned for their safety with thousands of inmates now on the streets.“We’ve increased almost double the amount of our personnel that are in the field, people are home now so nobody is gonna do a residential burglary with a house full of people waiting for them,” he said.

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“We’re providing extra patrols at all the closed businesses because we know they’re an easy target for burglaries, so we’re out there anticipating what they criminal element may try to do to take advantage of the situation.”

Villanueva said two weeks after he started releasing inmates from the jails, the ACLU sent him a letter demanding the same, and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors requested that he do the same.“We were ahead of the curve,” he said.