The sheriff of Orange County, California, said on Wednesday that he would fight a recent order issued by a local superior court judge to significantly reduce the number of inmates housed in the county’s jail system due to COVID-19 concerns.
According to FOX 11 News, Sheriff Don Barnes “is refusing to release any more” incarcerated people despite the mandate.
“These people who remain in the jail, they may have diabetes, but they’re also charged with murder,” Barnes told the outlet during an online interview. “Or they may be over 65, but may be a child molester.”
Sheriff Barnes posted an open letter to social media on Wednesday afternoon announcing his intention to appeal last Friday’s directive by Judge Peter Wilson to cut the detainee population in all congregate living areas by 50%. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed in April by the America Civil Liberties Union seeking to protect medically vulnerable people from coronavirus infection.
Judge Wilson ruled that Barnes had violated the state constitutional rights of individuals in custody deemed more susceptible to contracting and falling ill to coronavirus. Wilson said the sheriff showed “deliberate indifference” to the threat that the contagion poses to older adults or the immunocompromised.
Please see my message regarding last week's court ruling on the release of inmates, the effort to appeal the decision and how the community can help. Thank you pic.twitter.com/taJck3eqt5
— OC Sheriff Don Barnes (@OCSheriffBarnes) December 16, 2020
“As written the order could have required approximately 1,800 inmates to be released because the jail population at the time of the ruling was 3,716 inmates,” Barnes said in the letter. “On Wednesday, the judge clarified the specifics of his order and the number of potential releases is now based on the inmate population in March 2020. Even with the clarification the order would result in the release of hundreds of inmates.”
Barnes said the majority of the jail system’s 700 inmates believed to be “medically vulnerable” have been charged with murder (58), attempted murder (39), robbery (69), assault (87), domestic violence (76), or child molestation (94).
“I have considered their release and made my decision,” he wrote. “These serious offenders must be kept in custody.”
Sheriff Barnes accused the ACLU of exploiting “the current state of emergency to accomplish their goal of eliminating incarceration.”
“This organization views criminal activity through rose colored glasses while turning a blind eye to victims and the law abiding Orange County public,” he wrote. “For months we have fought against their ongoing attempts to release dangerous offenders into the neighborhoods of Orange County. We will not be deterred by one court ruling and will use every available legal avenue to keep these offenders out of our community.”
He asked for the public’s help, urging community organizations such as homeowners associations, chambers of commerce, and youth groups to file an amicus brief with the court backing the department’s appeal.
Before the pandemic began, Orange County’s jail system was the second-largest in California. However, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department recently told The Daily Wire that she could not confirm whether that is still the case. FOX 11 reports that the jail population has already been reduced by 33% since March.
“Throughout the pandemic I have considered the release of medically vulnerable inmates,” Barnes wrote. “Over the course of the last several months, I have made the decision to release those who have committed low-level offenses during the remaining period of their sentences. This decision allowed us to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on our jail system and preserve our ability to house dangerous offenders.”
According to the agency, the average daily jail population count declined to 2,826 on May 11 at the height of the active COVID-19 cases in its system. That number has steadily increased to 3,628, far below its capacity of 6,159.
FOX 11 spoke with Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, who told the outlet that almost 2,000 inmates had been released early from the jail system, but 44% have committed new crimes.
The Orange County jail system has experienced a recent outbreak of COVID-19 infections since last Friday, with 548 new cases. Sheriff Barnes said the numbers are high because they are testing every person detained, even those who are asymptomatic. Of Orange County’s 1,259 inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 since March, none have died, and only four have been admitted to hospitals for treatment, a department spokesperson told The Daily Wire on Thursday.
“COVID-19 cannot be allowed to upend our criminal justice system, particularly when we have proven our ability to mitigate the virus in a custody setting,” Barnes said. “The Sheriff’s Department can and will meet the responsibility of providing for the care of inmates and will not abdicate our duty to keep the residents of Orange County safe.”