Orange County officials blast judge's order to cut jail population by half

The outgoing chair of the Orange County Board of Supervisors added her voice to criticism of a judge's ruling ordering Sheriff Don Barnes to reduce the county's jail population by half to allow for more social distancing among inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson issued the order Friday in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of inmates, some of whom have been released, who said they were particularly at risk due to underlying health conditions.

Michelle Steel, who won election last month to the 48th Congressional District, said the order placed county residents in greater danger of crime.

RELATED: Judge orders OC sheriff to reduce jail population due to COVID-19

"As Chairwoman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, it is my number one priority to ensure the public safety and security of the people of Orange County. This reckless order to release 50% of the jail population, over 1,800 inmates, onto the streets of Orange County, many of whom are pre-trial or have been convicted of violent crimes, threatens our safety and will endanger our communities,'' Steel said.

SANTA ANA, CA - NOVEMBER 05: Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel participates in a press conference in Santa Ana, CA. (Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

"Orange County has been implementing proper safety measures to protect our inmates from the virus. Under Sheriff Barnes leadership, there have been zero deaths in OC jails and only three hospitalizations. This move is unnecessary and does more harm than good,'' her statement concluded. 

On Saturday, District Attorney Todd Spitzer blasted the ruling as well and pledged to support any effort to appeal it in court.

"A judge's ruling to reduce the inmate population in the Orange County jail system by half will release dangerous and violent criminals back into our neighborhoods to commit more crimes and victimize more people. This is
not fearmongering; it is a fact,'' Spitzer's statement said.

The jail population, through the implementation of $0 bail and early release by the Sheriff, has been reduced by more than 33% since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The District Attorney's Office has been keeping statistics in order to understand the impact of these court orders.Orange County inmates released early before serving their full sentence or on $0 bail went out and committed new crimes at rates at nearly triple normal recidivism rates: 44% for early release inmates and 38% for $0 bail defendants.

"A sample of their crimes: auto theft, burglary, robbery, assault, weapons, theft and narcotics. And a 23-year-old man who stabbed his 17-year-old ex-girlfriend four times, killing her. He had been released on $0 bail 3 1/2 weeks earlier,'' the statement continued. "These are not just new crimes. These are new victims.''

On Friday, Barnes said his department was "evaluating the order, its impacts and our options for appeal.''

"If the order stands, it will result in the release of more than 1,800 inmates,'' Barnes said. "Many of these inmates are in pretrial status for, or have been convicted of, violent crimes and will be released back into the community. This order puts our community at substantial risk and does not take into account the impact on the victims of these crimes.''

Spitzer said if the sheriff does appeal the ruling, the District Attorney's Office would file an amicus brief with its data -- "which demonstrates just how dangerous this decision is.''

RELATED: Stay up to date on all coronavirus-related information

Wilson said Barnes has options beyond unconditionally releasing inmates.

"They have ankle monitors,'' ACLU attorney Corene Kendrick said. Orange County has a "very robust'' home-confinement and monitoring program, Kendrick said.

"It's not rocket science on how to do it,'' Kendrick said.

Wilson chided the county's attorneys for failing to respond to the allegations from the inmates about the lack of social distancing in the jail system.

The ruling comes as Barnes wrangles with a new outbreak of COVID-19 in the jails this week. Barnes announced on Thursday there were 102 inmates infected with COVID-19. That number increased to 138 on Friday. Of those, 27 are newly booked inmates and 111 are in general population.

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