Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley and Public Defender Brendon Woods battled publicly last week over the issue of releasing inmates from the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin to stem the spread of COVID-19 within the facility.
Arguing she was balancing public safety with inmates’ rights to protect their health, O’Malley accused Woods of grandstanding when he called for her and judicial officials to release all inmates with sentences of six months or less to serve.
Woods issued the request following the disclosure that 12 inmates and two staff members had tested positive for the coronavirus by April 9. Woods said decreasing the jail population was the best way to prevent the COVID-19 spread.
“We’ve been sounding the alarm for three weeks, and now we are on the verge of the virus sweeping through the jail,” Woods said in a statement. “I don’t think prosecutors have gotten the message about how serious this is. They’re moving far too slowly, and now people in custody are getting sick.”
Sheriff’s Department officials disclosed March 25 that a nurse on staff had tested positive. On April 4, they announced that the first inmate had the illness and that measures were being taken to prevent a spread. By April 8, that number had reached two staff members and 12 inmates. On Sunday, the department reported two more staff/contractors had tested positive. By Monday, the agency reported that 15 inmates had tested positive, but decreased the number to nine after six recovered.
Woods called the positive tests the “tip of the iceberg”, and said he did not want Santa Rita Jail to become like jails in Chicago and New York City where the virus was rapidly spreading. He estimated that 115 Santa Rita inmates were serving sentences of less than six months, including 59 set to be released by the end of May.
“We want those people out right now,” Woods said. “What possible justification can the (district attorney) offer to keep them locked up for three more weeks in the midst of this virus? A county jail sentence should not be a death sentence.”
In response, O’Malley said her office was working for weeks with Woods’ office, defense attorneys and others “to systematically release individuals who do not pose a risk of harm to the community or to a victim of crime.”
O’Malley said her office was doing all it could to address the pandemic but had an obligation to protect the public from serious and violent offenders.
“This office takes very seriously the duty to balance a defendant’s rights with public safety,” O’Malley said in a statement. “It is very disappointing that the public defender has chosen this time of crisis to grandstand and to make politically divisive and disingenuous statements when what the circumstances demand of all public officials is unity and collaboration.”
O’Malley and the Sheriff’s Department said they had been taking steps to reduce the jail population, which, according to sheriff’s officials, had declined from 2,597 inmates on March 1 to 1,979 on April 8. Another 54 inmates were released by Sunday, dropping the population to 1,925. On Monday, the agency reported 1,929 inmates in the jail.
O’Malley said an average week’s filings were down 70% from a year ago since the county’s shelter-in-place order. Most crimes, other than three serious felonies, were filed and set for court dates 60 days out so defendants could be released while waiting. Those three serious cases required court dates within two days.
In other cases, O’Malley said her prosecutors were working with defense attorneys to release defendants on their own recognizance. On March 19, prosecutors agreed to release 247 inmates, knocking up to 80 days off their sentences. By the end of March, nine more Santa Rita inmates with “vulnerable health conditions” were released early. The office is now reviewing cases of people scheduled to be reduced by the end of May.
O’Malley said prosecutors did not agree to release some inmates, including a woman who tortured her 5-year-old child.
“Regardless of whether or not a defense attorney makes a request, the district attorney’s office continues to look at individuals with less than 60 days left on their sentence and are making recommendations to the reviewing judge that we do not oppose early release in appropriate cases,” she said.
Woods, who said race also played a role in his request to release inmates because statistics have shown blacks in the U.S. dying of COVID-19 at a higher rate than others, did not like O’Malley’s charge that he was grandstanding.
“Amazing how quickly you get accused of ‘grandstanding’ when you stand up for the rights of poor people, the rights of black and brown people, the rights of those locked in cages,” Woods wrote on Twitter. “I’ll take it.”
In other action that could help to reduce the numbers of people waiting in jail for court dates to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Judicial Council of California last week voted to set zero bail for misdemeanor and lesser felonies. The temporary order that began Monday will end cash bail until 90 days after Gov. Gavin Newsom terminates the state of emergency.
The order could serve as an experiment before voters decide the issue of whether to end cash bail on November’s ballot. Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 10 in 2018, ending the payment of money as the deciding factor in who remains behind bars while awaiting court proceedings and giving that discretion to judges.
The law was halted from taking effect after election officials certified the ballot measure. The state’s 3,200 bail bonds companies, with their profession at risk of being outlawed, opposed the law.
Civil rights attorney DeWitt Lacy, of Oakland’s John L. Burris law firm, called the Judicial Council’s decision to eliminate bail for lesser felonies fair because jails are “petri dishes for the coronavirus.”
“The criminal justice system is not meant to be one that exacts revenge by sentencing someone to death,” he said.
Lacy said he saw no harm in allowing people arrested for lesser crimes like shoplifting, jaywalking and outstanding parking tickets to remain out of custody.
“I think we might be surprised it works very well,” he said.