Orange County sheriff, DA fighting order to reduce jail population amid COVID-19 surge

SANTA ANA, Calif. (KABC) -- As COVID-19 continues to spread in Orange County jails, local officials are fighting a court order to slash the population of inmates.

A judge has ordered county Sheriff Don Barnes to reduce the county jail population by 50%.

The sheriff's response: "I have no intention of releasing any of these individuals from my custody. We are going to file an appeal and we're going to fight it and if the judge has any intent of releasing any one of these individuals, he will have to go through line by line, name by name and tell me which ones he is ordering released."

The order stems from an ACLU lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates.

"Public safety does not just mean crime," said Jacob Reisberg with the ACLU. "Public safety also means, is there a hospital bed open if you get sick? And if there's a massive outbreak in the jail, which this de-population order is trying to avoid, there will not be hospital capacity in Orange County for people on the outside who get COVID."

Last Monday, there were zero cases in the jails. Then the sheriff announced an outbreak with 138 cases Friday - jumping to 416 by Monday. He says it's high because they're testing everyone in the jail, even those who are asymptomatic - something that's not being done in the general public.

Barnes notes that inmates at times may be mixing with the general public outside the jails.

"We have inmates who are participating in different practices. Either going to medical appointments or going to court or meeting with their attorneys. These people are all from the general public and we know there's a surge within the general public."

District Attorney Todd Spitzer says the surge in the jails mirrors the trends in the county as a whole.

"Why does anybody think that what's going on in our jails is not gonna be a mirror image of what's already happening on the outside?" Spitzer said. "The numbers in the jail are not out of control or inflated as compared to what's going on outside of our jails."

Barnes and Spitzer argue that a release of 1,800 inmates would create more crime and more victims. Data from the DA's office shows low-level offenders who were released early or on $0 bail during the pandemic have committed new crimes at nearly three times the normal rate."

"There's no doubt it would jeopardize public safety because these are some of the worst of the worst," Spitzer said.

Another issue is the actual release of inmates. While the sheriff's department quarantines inmates when they are booked, that does not happen when they are released.
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