18 San Luis Obispo County jail inmates have been released from custody without having to pay any bail, as of April 17. That’s due to a statewide effort to quickly reduce jail populations to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But the number of inmates eligible for release is a small percentage of the jail's total population.
Meanwhile, since a new zero-bail policy kicked in on April 13, Central Coast district attorneys have been trying to prevent many of the eligible pre-trial defendants from getting released.
San Luis Obispo County court officials have been holding back-to-back hearings in response to the recent ruling by the California Judicial Council, the policy-making body of the state court system. The council ordered that all bails be set to zero dollars for people charged with non-violent felonies and misdemeanors. Defendants who meet the criteria are to be released from custody, but are still required to participate in their criminal cases.
“This new blanket order applies to people who could be very healthy and well and able to commit their crimes and if they’re released on zero bail, they could commit the same crime every day, be re-arrested and just let back out,” said San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow.
So far, Dow has contested the release of 33 inmates now eligible for zero bail. So far, the court has denied 13 of Dow’s motions to block release. In 11 of the cases, a judge has granted Dow’s request for the defendant not be released.
“It’s common in the sense that we’ve always had the ability to do it, but it's uncommon in the fact that we’ve never had a crisis like this where all of a sudden there was a new blanket order that was going to apply to a lot of people,” said Dow.
Dow said he’s concerned about the public’s safety and that all 58 California counties are making efforts to keep people from being released on zero bail.
Local attorney Scott Taylor is representing one of the eligible inmates that was denied release, due to a motion filed by the SLO County DA’s office. Taylor said he’s frustrated with the arguments being made by county prosecutors.
“We deserve to give them a shot and I don’t think we’re well served just trying to scare the hell out of the general public...that emptying the jails is going to be the end of our society and create this giant crime wave,” said Taylor. “These are people and they deserve the chance to shelter in place.”
Taylor said that it’s not a matter of ‘if’ the coronavirus will reach the jail but ‘when’ and that he is not confident in the jail’s ability to protect people inside.
“A lot of them have lived tough lives and have underlying chronic conditions and it puts them at an increased risk of COVID-19,” Taylor said. “ I think the whole point is, we should be giving all of these people the ability to survive this and the opportunity to shelter in place.”
California has an incarcination rate that is over four times that of the entire United Kingdom. Approximately 82,000 people are in custody at county and city jails across the state, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Roughly half of those prisoners haven't been sentenced.
COVID-19 IN JAILS
Dow said prior to the state judicial council’s order, the SLO County DA and sheriff’s offices were already making efforts to prepare for a COVID-19 outbreak, by evaluating inmates most at risk.
A federal prison in Lompoc, in Santa Barbara County, has one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation, where at least 70 inmates and 25 staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus so far. On April 17, the Santa Barbara County Jail reported its first confirmed COVID-19 case, in a Santa Maria man arrested and booked into the jail on April 1.
Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley has also filed motions to block releases, but said she agrees with the order from the state judicial council. Dudley said she thinks the chief justice intentionally left room for judges to make their own decisions.
Dudley said her office does not object to every release, but has been focused on how crime victims are doing.
“In a time where there aren’t a lot of people out there who are seeing what’s going on in people’s homes like teachers, and coaches and clergy, because generally those are the mandated reporting parties, “ Dudley said. “But we’ve lost our mandated reporting parties with our at-home orders.”
All jury trials have been suspended until at least June. When the courts get back up and running, those defendants released since the zero bail policy went into effect will need to continue their cases then.