Is Coronavirus Triggering De-Facto Early Release for Thousands of Offenders?

In recent years, California has undergone a significant change in its approach to criminal justice.

As PRI’s Kerry Jackson writes in his book, Living in Fear in California, once California’s prison population reached an all-time high of 160,000 in 2006, “a May 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling . . . upheld the 2009 order of a three-judge panel, which said that the state prisons were overcrowded and could not house more than 137,500 percent of the state facilities’ design capacity of about 79,000.”

Thanks to the enactment of public safety realignment (AB 109) – which shifted thousands of felons from state prisons to county jails – and the voter-approved Propositions 47 and 57, the inmate population has fallen to 113,752 in the March California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) figures.

With the coronavirus ravaging state prisons – as of April 6, 17 inmates were confirmed to have coronavirus – California is about to undergo another rapid and significant reduction in its state inmate population.

Last week, CDCR announced that it was “expediting the transition to parole for eligible inmates who have 60 days or less to serve on their sentence and are not currently serving time for a violent crime as defined by law, a sex offense, or domestic violence.”  This would effectively grant early release to about 3,500 inmates, according to department estimates.

In addition, Gov. Newsom recently issued an executive order suspending the intake of state prison inmates from county jails, which CDCR estimates would reduce the state inmate population by about 3,000 inmates.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that “Alameda County granted early release (in March) to nearly 250 inmates . . . (while) the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department reported . . . that it had released 1,700 inmates from county jails who had less than 30 days to left to serve or were being held on bail of less than $50,000.”

Even though he is enjoying astronomical approval ratings, Newsom is sensitive to charges that this is a de-facto early release order.  “I have no interest, and I want to make this crystal clear, in releasing violent criminals from our system, and I won’t use a crisis as an excuse to create another crisis,” he said at a press conference in late March.

But despite his public assurances, there are loopholes in the state’s massive criminal justice policy shift of the 2010’s that have resulted in serious offenses being considered as non-violent ones.

As Jackson writes, “the following crimes (would) be open to consideration as ‘non-violent felonies’ (under Penal Code Section 667.5): battery that includes serious bodily injury, solicitation to commit murder . . . hate crimes . . . assault on a peace officer with a deadly weapon (and) active participation in a street gang,” among other offenses.

Law enforcement and victim advocates are concerned.

Tulare Sheriff Mike Boudreaux wrote on social media that, “this virus should not be used as an excuse for a get out of jail free card.”

Noting that “those serving time in jail are already in shelter at home, behind a lock and key,” Boudreaux concluded that “victims still need their justice.”

Naturally, inmate advocates want to go even further than Newsom.  One told the San Francisco Chronicle that “they were seeking between 10,000 and 15,000 early releases.”

The Los Angeles Times reports that lawyers representing inmates filed an emergency motion before the three-judge federal panel overseeing the state’s inmate medical care.

“The remedies that inmate lawyers propose,” the Times reports, “range from mass releases to the state’s use of empty buildings and acquisition of property to temporarily house inmates – akin to COVID-19 measures to house cruise ship passengers and the homeless.”

The federally-appointed prison health care receiver J. Clark Kelso argued that inmate reductions should be “focused on inmates who have homes and families to return to . . . (as) an early release is unlikely to improve the inmate’s environment from a healthcare perspective and may increase the COVID-19 risk in the community of release.”

The court rejected the request on Saturday, on largely procedural grounds, with further legal action by inmate attorneys likely.

Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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