LA County Sheriff, fearing corona-virus outbreak in jails, calling for fewer arrests

The corona-virus pandemic shuttering bars and closing public spaces all over California is coming for local jails, too — officials with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are reducing the jail population by hundreds of inmates as they try to prevent an outbreak behind bars. Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Monday that there were 617 fewer inmates — down to 16,459 inmates total — since the department started implementing emergency measures to reduce the county’s jail population in late February. He said those methods included releasing inmates with just days left on their sentences — Villanueva said California law allows local sheriffs to order the release of convicts with 30 days or less left to serve. LASD also advised local police departments — hundreds across the county who depend on the sheriff’s department to accept arrested people for booking in its expansive jail system — to arrest fewer people.

“We’re directing our local agencies to cite and release everybody they can,” Villanueva said at the Hall of Justice on Monday. “If there’s someone who needs to be arrested who shows symptoms (of coronavirus)…they’re being directed to seek medical clearance first before they attempt to do a booking.” California law allows local sheriffs to order cite-and-release only for anyone accused of crimes with bail amounts less than $50,000, Villanueva said. According to the 2020 county bail schedule, that can include some violent offenses — involuntary manslaughter, assault upon a custodial officer, sexual battery, some forms of assault, discharging a firearm — and a long list of non-violent ones: bribing public officials, offering forged documents, perjury, campaign violations, etc. Villanueva detailed the changes in booking inmates as he released an expansive list of changes to the day-to-day work of thousands of deputies patrolling neighborhoods and manning sheriff stations. To get more deputies on the street, he canceled vacation requests through April. And deputies in non-essential roles at stations were reassigned to patrol.

Law enforcement and court officials hope taking fewer people in to local jails will prevent what could be a disastrous outbreak of the coronavirus among their inmate population. Disease can spread quickly in crowded jails. But Villanueva noted jails can also be one of the safest places for stopping an infection decisively. Just a few months ago, in October 2019, the Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A. experienced a mumps outbreak — 33 inmates were infected, but Villanueva said a quarantine of several hundred inmates stopped the infection quickly. “(Mumps) is highly infectious, even more so than (coronavirus),” Villanueva said. “We were able to isolate and quarantine inmates …We control all the movement of everyone we have in there, so we have the ability to be forceful on those outbreaks.” No inmates have tested positive for coronavirus so far, but 21 were in quarantine at Men’s Central Jail. Five were in quarantine at Twin Towers Correctional Facility. Villanueva also asked local cities to hold on to their prisoners for 24 to 48 hours after they arrest them, rather than initiating the sheriffs booking system right away. Anyone arrested for a crime in California must be arraigned within two days of their arrest, or be released.