Newsom Issues Executive Order on Prison, Stops Short of Release
Governor Gavin Newsom and local officials deserve a lot of credit for their response thus far to COVID-19. The quick and aggressive response has prevented California from spiraling out of control to this point like New York has.
On Tuesday, Governor Newsom issued an executive order on state prisons “to reduce the risks of COVID-19 in correctional settings.”
For the most part, the order was limited to halting “the intake and/or transfer of inmates and youth into the state’s 35 prisons and four youth correctional facilities. Those inmates and youth will remain in county custody for the next 30 days.”
“The State of California is responding in real time and fighting hard to deploy every resource to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and we are working with our public health experts, corrections system and our local sheriff’s departments to ensure proper protocols and procedures are in place to effectively limit risks in correctional facilities,” said Governor Newsom.
The problem of course is that the inmates who remain in county custody are in no better position than those in prison. They lack access to quality medical care and are in a confined space that could serve as the perfect breeding ground for a rapid escalation of COVID-19.
In New Jersey the stakeholders, which included the AG’s Office, Prosecutors, Public Defenders and the state branch of the ACLU, agreed “that the reduction of county jail populations, under appropriate conditions, is in the public interest to mitigate risks imposed by COVID-19.”
The ACLU-NJ reports that the “order could impact up to 1,000 people incarcerated in county jails.”
The prosecutor still has the ability to challenge “the release of specific individuals where they contend there exist significant risks to the person being released or to public safety.”
New Jersey has led the way in this respect, as no other state has agreed to release such a large number of people in its jails—this despite growing concern across the board that jail populations are vulnerable and at risk from COVID-19.
“Unprecedented times call for rethinking the normal way of doing things, and in this case, it means releasing people who pose little risk to their communities for the sake of public health and the dignity of people who are incarcerated,” ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha said in a statement. “This is truly a landmark agreement, and one that should be held up for all states dealing with the current public health crisis.
While California fails to act, Iowa has now stepped up with “plans to expedite the release of about 700 inmates who were already determined eligible for release by the Iowa Board of Parole.
“By accelerating the release wait list, more beds will open up, which can allow the correctional facility to move inmates more easily if an outbreak does occur in a prison,” the state said.
What California has done is limit transports, and they are also halting all trials in the state for the next 60 days.
“All jury trials are suspended and continued for a period of sixty (60) days from the date of this order. Courts may conduct such a trial at an earlier date, upon a finding of good cause shown or through the use of remote technology, when appropriate,” the order from Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye reads.
But while the justice’s order takes steps to protect the public and court personnel, it leaves many in-custody defendants in the hot zone, so to speak, with limited provisions for release—and those provisions have been on a county-by-county basis.
This is the problem—without a plan to get people who do not pose a threat out of our jails and prisons, we actually end up risking our entire population.
“We know that there are many, many people in state prison who do not pose a danger to the public if released,” San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin told the Vanguard on Tuesday.
He pointed out, “There are so many people in prison, however, that keeping them there does pose a serious public health risk in the context of COVID-19. Jails and prisons pose the real risk of becoming major vectors for the spread of disease and I urge the Governor and other District Attorneys to follow the advice of medical professionals and take immediate steps to reduce the jail and prison population.”
In fact, the San Francisco DA argues in a lengthy interview with Forbes that COVID-19 probably doesn’t end without criminal justice reform.
“We have a real concern that jails could be a major vector for the spread of disease for a number of reasons,” he said, pointing out that we are not actually locking down prisons. Instead, there is daily “churn.” He explained that there is a “large number of people going in and out of jails and prisons every day, as well as the staff going in and out every day.
“Even if a prison has been shut down, there’s a minimum staff required to maintain that facility.”
The problem is, he said, “unless we reduce the prison population, we simply can’t (control the spread). All it takes is a single person coming into or going out of the jail or prison with COVID-19, and the entire jail will likely be infected. Most jails have people living in very close quarters.”
New Jersey and Iowa have recognized this fact. Governor Newsom, in liberal California, with progressive prosecutors, legislature and an Attorney General, is, however, slow to respond to this crisis—even as he has led the way in responding to the overall COVID-19 crisis.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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