Los Al Council goes on record supporting Sheriff’s inmate appeal

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O.C.Sheriff Don Barnes

Despite pleas from a handful of citizens to do otherwise, the Los Alamitos City Council voted 5-0 to go on record to support Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes’ attempt to appeal a judge’s order reducing the prison population by 50 percent.

The council convened in a special meeting Dec. 21 to discuss a resolution supporting Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes’ efforts to appeal a Superior Court decision that could put 1,800 inmates back on street to protect them from COVID-19.

With a current census of nearly 3,600 inmates, the 50 per cent reduction required by the court order is to release approximately 1,800 inmates. Of the “medically vulnerable inmates”, the council was told, would include 59 inmates charged with murder, 38 with attempted murder and 90 charged with molestation.

Also, it was not clear how many of them would test COVID positive.

“This Court Order is especially concerning given that there have already been significant impacts on public safety related to the release of prisoners by the County of Orange and State of California related to COVID-19, said city manager Chet Simmons in a state report.
“While the City recognizes the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and encourages the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to continue to take all appropriate steps to safeguard against the spread of the virus, the Court Order puts our community at substantial risk and does not consider the overall impact that such a release would have on Orange County,” the report continued.

Orange County has already released 1,400 prisoners since the pandemic began, it said, and the state’s Corrections Department has released over 22,000 inmates.

“This is a tough call,” said Mayor Mark Chirco, who told the council that while he could simply write a letter of support, he was most comfortable letting the council vote on a resolution.

While other organizations may be filing amicus briefs in court, a simple resolution was “the most cost effective” solution, said Chirco.

While council members expressed concern about inmate health, they worried that the release of so many inmates back into the community could increase dangers along with community spread.

Before the debate releases the entire council, they heard from activists who strongly opposed them supporting the Sheriff in court.

“You should not support this baseless lawsuit,” said Community Advocate Felicity Figueroa. “There are currently 835 positive cases in OC jails, with 906 results pending.”

Figueroa said the rate of virus spread in prison was six times that of the general population, claiming the OC Sheriff’s Department “does not know how or did not care to prevent further infection.”

“It is morally wrong and inhumane to treat fellow human beings to an atmosphere of disease and potential death,” she said. Some of those in OC prisons had not yet “been formally charged with a crime, much less convicted.”

Michelle Teo warned the council that “folks in the community are watching to see what this new council does, and it is best to consider the ramifications of your actions.”

“Folks who are in jail are actually human as well and deserve to be treated with compassion and care about health,” said Teo.

Barbara Farrell, of Los Al Community United, said she lives near Los Alamitos Medical Center and has been hearing many sirens in the night, presumably bringing in COVID patients. The Council falsely said they were safer in jail. “I think we all know that is not true.”

“This is not anything to fool around (with) and I strongly urge you not to support that brief,” she said.

While understanding the plight of prisoners, the council nevertheless expressed clear reservations about their concern for community safety, both for potential crime or enhanced community spread if the inmates are released.

“Obviously, our position is never going to be let those in jail catch COVID-19. That is not the intention in any regard,” said Chirco.

“On the other hand, our job as council members, and leaders of our community, is to look after the health and safety of our community,” the mayor said. “And when there is a single judge ordering the release of 1,800 inmates including murder suspects, convicted murderers and others, I think that is something we are very concerned about for our community.”

“The way I look at this, we don’t want those in prison to be disregarded and are never going to let people who are in jail catch COVID.”

“We obviously know a number of prisoners have been exposed (to COVID-19),” said Mayor Pro-tem Shelley Hasselbrink. She questioned whether or not the court order provided for contact tracing and other protections against community spread if the inmates are released.

City Manager Chet Simmons said, while he would have to refer to Sheriff Barnes, he thought “there are a number of people that are coded positive within the jail system; they would be released back into the public and could in effect actually contribute to a larger community spread given the fact that they may not have the support systems in place in order to be able to isolate and such.”

Council member Tanya Doby said press accounts indicated a rising positive COVID inmate count in recent weeks, though “I believe that they (Sheriff’s Department) are continuing to modify their operations in order to try to stamp out any further spread.”

Council member Ron Bates wanted to clarify that they were supporting a simple resolution rather than an amicus (friend of the court) legal brief.

“I don’t want to put you on the spot,” Chirco said to Police Chief Eric R. Nunez, “but if a convicted murder gets released, when do they go back (to prison)?”

Nunez, who clarified while he could not be sure, he could only compare to previous releases; suggested released inmates would be tracked using an ankle bracelet or tracking device and when it was safe enough, they would “be re-entered into the system.”

Council member Jordan Nefulda suggested that the court order would also create a problem with what to do with day-to-day arrests. “I think we have to consider that as well.”

“Our job is to protect our residents,” said Hasselbrink, noting that “we’re not releasing those in the assisted living facilities because it’s better to keep them contained and treat them in a contained environment so why would we treat prisoners in any differently?”

In addition, she said, the release could “add (an) extra level of danger possibly to our residents for repeat offenses and everything like that, so I just don’t understand.”
Chirco, an attorney, said he would be more comfortable “having another set of eyes (the appellate court)” review the court order.

Bates made the motion to authorize the resolution, Hasselbrink seconded it, and the council voted 5-0 to back Sheriff Barnes’ attempt to appeal the Superior Court order to release the inmates.