OC Judge to Consider Jail Depopulation for COVID-19

SANTA ANA (CNS) - An Orange County Superior Court judge today will consider options to cut the county's jail population in half to better manage the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last month, Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson ordered the jail population reduced by 50%. Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes has attempted to appeal the order, but so far has failed, compelling him to submit a plan on how to halve the inmate population.

American Civil Liberties Union attorneys, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of several current and former inmates, said in papers filed this week Barnes failed to submit the plan Wilson ordered.

Instead, the ACLU attorneys argued,  Barnes “devotes most of his plan to discussing measures that are unrelated to population reduction. None of these measures address the urgent need for social distancing within the jail. The few measures that could conceivably promote social distancing are woefully inadequate.''

Barnes has asked Wilson to modify his order and is demanding an evidentiary hearing on the merits of the ACLU's claims. The plaintiffs, however, said the county has in the past “repeatedly waived'' the right to an evidentiary hearing.

Earlier in the week, Wilson ordered Barnes to submit a list of the medical and criminal history of every inmate and where they are being housed, ostensibly to determine which inmates should be qualified for some sort of release from the jails, which could include electronic monitoring under house arrest.

Last week, Barnes defended his coronavirus response, saying he has provided personal protective equipment to his staff and to inmates, including face coverings, and has promoted good hygiene and cleaning in the jails. The sheriff also noted how he stopped community visits with inmates as one measure to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Barnes noted he has already released 1,471 inmates to reduce the population in custody. Of those, 183 were declared “medically vulnerable,'' he said, insisting that “everybody who I can release has been released from my jails.''

Releasing more inmates will present a danger to the community, Barnes said.

“Those who remain in jail present significant risk of heinous crimes... or present a risk to the public if I release them back into the community,'' he said.

Barnes maintained that he can manage coronavirus in his jails.

“We take temperatures of all personnel, and we have a very robust quarantine environment... which has proven to work very well,'' Barnes said. “We have proven through our best practices that we can whittle that number (of infected) down.''

Sheriff's authorities had gotten all of the coronavirus cases in the jails down to zero early last month, except for newly booked inmates, but then there was a sudden and swift outbreak of COVID-19 that has infected more than a thousand inmates at a time.

As of Thursday, there were 1,020 inmates infected as authorities await the results of 619 tests. Six inmates are hospitalized. One died from COVID-19 while awaiting trial.

Photo: Getty Images

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