Sacramento Public Defender Asks Appeal Court to Intervene, Release County Jail Inmates because of COVID-19 Threat

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By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

SACRAMENTO – In what could be described as a bold, desperate attempt, the Sacramento County Public Defenders Office has filed an “emergency request” with the 3rd District Court of Appeal, asking for the release of nearly 1,700 people confined in the Sacramento jail system, according to the pleadings made available to THE VANGUARD Friday.

The higher court must order the jail “temporarily cap the Sacramento County Jail System at 1,800 inmates” to “allow each inmate to maintain at least six feet of distance between themselves and others” because of the COVID-19 outbreak, according to the pleading signed by Assistant Public Defender John Stoller.

Read it here: Sacramento County Public Defender 3rd Court of Appeal Motion

The late Thursday filing is supported by nearly 100 medical and other professionals – two are doctors who have worked inside the Sacramento jails – and maintains that delays by the Sacramento County Superior Court threaten not only those incarcerated, but also the “lives of law enforcement, medical personnel, jail staff, attorneys, court personnel and the community at large (and) threatens to destabilize emergency medical infrastructure across the community.”

The Writ of Appeal – which is, give or take, 824 pages, including attachments – charges that the petitioner’s “liberty is tied to his financial resources,” and that the bail was set “Before COVID-19 descended upon the nation.” The Writ asks that the court “act on the lower court’s behalf and release” the prisoners, or “order the lower court to act.”

The inmate petitioners claim they have filed seven motions, between March 20 and March 24, and the Sacramento Superior Court “abdicated its responsibility to enforce Due Process of law and protect accused persons from unlawful and prolonged confinement.”

The superior court has refused to hear the motions, according to Thursday’s filing.

Stoller wrote in an earlier plea for early release, “Time is not the main thing. Time is the only thing. The Constitution requires confined persons be treated within the minimum civilized norms of society.

“In the midst of a global pandemic, where preventing the spread of a life threatening virus requires we all maintain a safe distance from others, those civilized norms call upon people to remain in their homes, practice good hygiene and sanitation, avoid crowds, and generally stay six feet apart from another. Those civilized norms are denied to people currently confined in the Sacramento County jail system.”

Petitioners in the case are either misdemeanor or felony individuals, being held in pretrial confinement. At least one is held on bail of more than $100,000 for a vehicle code violation, another who can afford bail is due to be released in weeks, a position many others are in, according to the filing. Others represented in the filing are convicted inmates projected to be released between August and December.

The Public Defender suggested that its goal is the “stifling of the spread of COVID-19,” and, “Even if named petitioners are not released, the conditions of confinement are improved and made less dangerous by the of others.”

The pleading notes that there is “good cause” to show that release would “ensure the jail emergency medical system is not overwhelmed” because the jail “has a small medical unit that does not have the capacity to treat mass numbers of inmates needing ventilators and hospital beds,” adding that the Sacramento County jail system double-cells most or all confined persons.

“Due to the nature of COVID-19, this makes containing spread impossible for the Sheriff’s Department. Reducing the jail population is necessary to preserve the health and lives of confined persons, deputies, sheriff staff, medical staff, and their families,” the defense lawyers assert.

The Public Defender emphasized that “continuing to double-cell detainees in the midst of a pandemic violates” the basic rights of those confined, especially particularly vulnerable persons, defined as those 60 and over or those with preexisting health conditions.

“The court must balance the risk these persons have of contracting the disease against the risk to the public posed by their release. The same public safety concerns addressed in this motion should be considered for this population as well; the court should and must consider the interests of justice, including the severity of the offense, balanced against the defendant’s health status,” the filing remarks, adding:

“Continued confinement of particularly-vulnerable persons who do not pose a public safety risk violates their rights to due process, to equal protection, and to be free of cruel and unusual punishment,” explaining that some defendants are “vulnerable” because they are over the age of 60/have a serious medical condition.

The Public Defender is seeking, in the least, bail hearings for the most vulnerable group, and “an order granting own-recognizance release or release on appropriate financial or non-financial conditions.”

Other inmates should be released, argues the Public Defender, because they are being held for “non-serious, non-violent, non-sex-registerable offenses” because they “present a low risk to public safety,” and because “[i]t is inhumane, bad public policy and a violation of the Eighth Amendment to keep those persons confined without a demonstration of extreme necessity.

“An inmate serving a sentence has the constitutional right to a decent and humane living environment. Because the current jail conditions foster the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the mandatory safety protocols are near-impossible in the current custodial situation, continued confinement is cruel and unusual punishment,” the Writ opined.

“Rarely in the history of the state have individual decisions concerning custody or release had such grave potential consequence to the community at large. Without compelling circumstances there is no justification for confining defendant(s),” the Public Defender asserted.

Arguing that the courts “have a duty to protect the constitutional rights of institutionalized persons where the conditions of confinement make the risk of contracting a life threatening disease a certainty,” the Writ asks the 3rd District Court of Appeal, if it does not release prisoners, to order the Sheriff to screen confined inmates for symptoms of COVID-19 daily, test them if symptoms are found, cause defendants to be at least six feet away from others, not be transported in a vehicle that requires “proximity” to others of less than six feet, and be provided with hand sanitizer, tissues, disinfecting wipes, soap, disposable gloves and face masks.

The Writ also asks, among other things, that defendants’ housing be single celled, cleaned and disinfected before and after they are transported, and otherwise every 24 hours that inmates be allowed to clean their own cells, that their clothes be cleaned and disinfected daily, and they be allowed to wash their hands thoroughly and regularly with soap and water/alcohol-based hand rub.

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