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Will CA Consider Prison Releases to Lessen COVID-19 Risk?

States and counties across the U.S. are considering whether to release some people convicted of nonviolent offenses to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in overcrowded jails and prisons. (Chatiyanon/Adobe Stock)
States and counties across the U.S. are considering whether to release some people convicted of nonviolent offenses to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in overcrowded jails and prisons. (Chatiyanon/Adobe Stock)
March 26, 2020

LOS ANGELES -- Civil rights advocates are praising Los Angeles County's release of 1,700 people in jail for nonviolent offenses in an effort to fight COVID-19 infections, but they also say more needs to be done.

The L.A. County Sheriff's Department released 10% of the jail population.

So far, no one behind bars in L.A. has tested positive for the virus, but Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, says it is only a matter of time.

"And the minute that starts happening, the more people who are there, the more people are going to get it in the jails," he states. "And then those people are going to come out into the community, and they're going to be flashpoints for further transmission."

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has asked the county health officer to issue a public health order that would empower the sheriff to release more people, particularly those with fewer than 30 days remaining on their sentences.

Opponents of the move say releasing people early could lead to more crime.

The Drug Policy Alliance is calling for jails and prisons across the country to release most people who are over age 60, and those who have underlying medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to a viral infection.

Eliasberg says the authorities won't release people convicted of violent offenses.

"We're facing the greatest public health threat in 100 years," he stresses. "So, that has to the number one thing we focus on.

"The threat that probably millions of people will be exposed to it, I think that's the greatest public safety risk we've got to worry about -- not an increase in crime."

Civil rights groups also are calling on judges to allow more people to await trial at home, especially those picked up on immigration offenses.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California cosponsored a bill to open community release programs to people in federal prisons who are pregnant, over age 50 or who have underlying health issues.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - CA