By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief
SACRAMENTO – The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office isn’t going down without a fight.
When the State Judicial Council unanimously approved an emergency order last week to reduce the number of bodies in the state’s local jails to minimize the threat of a COVID-19 hot spot on vulnerable incarcerated populations, it mandated that bail for most of the jail detainees, with some exceptions, should be reduced to zero.
As a result, hundreds of people on bail in Sacramento County’s two jails expected to get out Monday. Not exactly.
The DA has challenged 104 of at least 309 people who were to be let loose – the DA believes those particular inmates pose a “public safety” threat on the streets, although prison reform advocates have argued that plenty of “dangerous” criminals who had the money to pay high bail are already loose.
The 100 plus bail hearings at the DA’s request begin Tuesday in at least two Zoom courtrooms, with judge, and prosecutors not present in person. Defense counsel and defendants are “live” in jail court.
“The court…(is) in receipt of the list of 104 inmates in which the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office is objecting to their release due to a concern for the risk to public safety and requesting a bail hearing on those cases,” said Sacramento Superior Assist. Presiding Judge Michael Bowman in a memo Monday in granting the DA’s motion. He thanked the DA Office “for its effort.”
The Sacramento Superior Court then issued a statement late Monday after hours, noting that the new zero bail scheduled applied to “all persons arrested and to all persons held in pretrial custody” until 90 days after the state declares that the state of emergency because of COVID-19 is over.
The court noted that the 4,005 person capacity of county jails is now reduced to about 2,600 detainees. This new release would bring the jail population closer to the 2,300 level.
There is also a pending appeal by the Sacramento County Public Defender’s Office in the 3rd District that could reduce the county jail level by upwards of another 1,000 – mainly releasing those with only months left on their sentences and vulnerable to COVID-19 because of age or pre-existing conditions.
The point of all these court machinations is that a reduced jail count would lessen the chance of a COVID-19 outbreak because remaining inmates could more easily “socially-distance.”
The State Judicial Council did allow exceptions to the zero bail releases for violent offenders, but it appears from the DA list that many of those the DA wants to stay behind bars are facing only traffic offenses.
In its motion filed late Friday, the DA argued that “The public safety shall be the primary consideration of bail determinations….the court can consider ‘the protection of the public, the safety of the victim, the seriousness of the offense charged, the previous criminal record of the defendant, and the probability of his or her appearing at the trial or hearing of the case.’”
Acknowledging it was a difficult call to balance “both Constitutions” with the “health and safety needs of their local community with the civil and constitutional rights and liberties of individuals and groups from our communities,” CA Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, chair of the Judicial Council, defended the actions of the Council last week.
“(A)s part of our ongoing collective effort to flatten the curve, stem the spread of the virus, and assume the responsibility delegated to us by Governor Newsom ‘with utmost care and judiciousness’ we seek to address the issues of the faces behind the cases, and those that support them in seeking relief, resolving disputes, or having their voice heard by the courts. All are ‘number one’ on our list,” she said.
“(T)o say that there is no playbook is a gross understatement of the situation. I’m confident we can preserve the rule of law and protect the rights of victims, the accused, litigants, families and children, and all who seek justice,” the chief justice added.
The Judicial Council’s emergency order:
“The Emergency Bail Schedule (will) set bail at $0 for misdemeanors and certain felonies, with exceptions for serious felonies under Penal Code section 1192.7(c) and violent felonies under Penal Code sections 667.5(c), and other offenses such as those involving domestic violence or stalking, driving under the influence offenses, and offenses requiring sex offender registration…the application of the statewide Emergency Bail Schedule to any accused currently held in county jail custody charged with an offense covered by the schedule.
“The rule would provide that each superior court’s current bail schedule would remain in effect for all offenses other than those addressed in the Emergency Bail Schedule and provide courts with authority to revise those remaining portions of their schedules, including setting bail for court-specific conduct enhancements and any status enhancements.
“Bail to be set at $0 for violations of misdemeanor probation, whether the arrest is made with or without a bench warrant. For violations of felony probation, parole, post release community supervision, or mandatory supervision, bail must be set in the same amount as bail for the underlying substantive charge of conviction under the Emergency Bail Schedule.”
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