SAN BERNARDINO — County Sheriff John McMahon and District Attorney Jason Anderson voiced opposition Thursday to a court rule they say will lead to the release of hundreds of county inmates, including some who pose a danger to the community.
The rule, approved by the Judicial Council of California last week, requires that bail for people accused of certain misdemeanor and felony offenses be set at $0. The rule applies to both new arrestees and people already in custody.
People charged with serious or violent offenses such as murder, rape, or robbery are not eligible.
The Council said in a statement the rule would “safely reduce jail populations” amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Prisons have been linked to concentrated outbreaks of COVID-19 cases as officials grapple to contain its spread. At a state prison in Chino, 51 inmates and 22 staff members have tested positive for the virus, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported Friday.
“In developing these rules, we listened to suggestions from our justice system partners, the public, and the courts, and we greatly appreciate all of the input,” said Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, chair of the Council. “Working with our court stakeholders, I’m confident we can preserve the rule of law and protect the rights of victims, the accused, litigants, families and children, and all who seek justice. It’s truly a team effort.”
In separate Facebook videos, McMahon and Anderson criticized the decision.
In the District Attorney’s video, ominous music played at the beginning as a text graphic read: “The California Judicial Council has ordered the release of certain inmates into the community solely because of COVID-19. Some of these inmates are a threat to your safety…”
According to Anderson, inmates who have remained in custody and could be released are “some of the worst of the worst.” He said the judicial order doesn’t take into account those accused of child or elder abuse and prior convictions.
Inmates released due to COVID-19? You read that right. Join @sheriffmcmahon , @sbcountysheriff and our office in sending a unified message that this is unacceptable for San Bernardino County! #zerobail #unifiedmessage #thinblueline pic.twitter.com/oVehymFQB0
— San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office (@sbcountyda) April 17, 2020
McMahon said, as a result of the zero bail requirement, an inmate who had been arrested on suspicion of felony child abuse — and who had prior convictions of child abuse and domestic violence — had been released and scheduled to appear in court.
“Based on this process, we are unable to hold this criminal in custody to ensure he does not recontact, live with or cause additional harm to the victim,” McMahon said. “The effects of zero bail on the county could be devastating.”
.@SheriffMcMahon and @sbcountyda Jason Anderson strongly oppose the Judicial Council’s ruling to blindly gift $0 bail! This approach is short-sided & not in the best interest of public safety.
See the DA’s message: @sbcountyda pic.twitter.com/c6njBL4e9i
— San Bernardino County Sheriff (@sbcountysheriff) April 17, 2020
Sheriff’s spokesperson Cindy Bachman said more than 500 inmates could have their charges reviewed and decided on, with an estimated 7 to 10 new arrestees a day fitting the zero-bail criteria.
County Public Defender G. Christopher Gardner said he doesn’t believe county residents should be in fear, however, as “the worst of the worst are in jail for charges that aren’t allowed zero bail.”
The Judicial Council rule makes those people charged with serious or violent felonies; allegedly violated a protective order; made felony criminal threats; resisted an executive officer; or are accused of other offenses exempt from qualifying for zero bail.
Gardner said since the order was enacted Monday, about 80 to 100 inmates had been released with the approval of his office, the District Attorney’s, and the court’s.
“I don’t think there’s reason to be scared for the community in the way that we’re handling this,” the public defender said. “I understand [McMahon’s and Anderson’s] point of view, but I don’t think the citizens of San Bernardino should be afraid of the way it’s set up because I think our law and justice system is doing it in a very prudent matter … We’re not just opening the doors and letting people out. That’s not happening.”
Gardner said inmates the public defenders and prosecutors disagreed on releasing would face a hearing and have a judge decide next week. The rule doesn’t restrict the ability of judges to deny bail.
Inmates who are eligible for zero bail already have a bail set, Gardner said, but they remained in jail because they couldn’t afford it.
“They’re essentially locked in jail right now because their bail is too high, not because they’re a danger to the community,” he said.
In his video, Sheriff McMahon also questioned the releasing of zero-bail inmates due to COVID-19 as his jails have only reported one positive case in an inmate as of Friday.
He said the jail population was lower than average, which allowed more bed space to isolate and quarantine inmates suspected of contracting the virus.
“Inmates in our custody receive excellent medical treatment and oftentimes have access to health care more readily than those in jail,” he said.
On Friday, the Sheriff’s Department reported that a 10th employee — a nurse who works in corrections — had tested positive for COVID-19.
That would make seven Sheriff’s employees who work in corrections that have contracted the virus, according to Bachman.
She said measures to prevent the spread include taking temperatures of everyone who enters the jail and screening arrestees to determine whether they have flu-like symptoms or have been exposed to the coronavirus.
Bachman added inmates and staff had been issued face coverings and given soap donated by local hotels to frequently wash their hands. Visits and programs and also been suspended.
After Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an order on March 24 to temporarily suspend intake of inmates into state prisons from the counties due to coronavirus concerns, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations announced it would be releasing thousands of incarcerated people to early parole.
State prison officials said Monday the prison population had been reduced by more than 6,700 inmates.
Those infected with COVID-19 in state prisons include 81 inmates and 88 staff members, according to CDCR data as of Friday.
Martin Estacio may be reached at MEstacio@VVDailyPress.com or at 760-955-5358. Follow him on Twitter @DP_mestacio.