A new bail schedule that lowers bail to $0 for nearly all misdemeanors and many felonies led to more than 300 people being released from San Diego County jails on Wednesday.
However not everyone who is eligible for release under the order, issued Monday by the San Diego Superior Court under a statewide mandate from Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, was let out of custody. District Attorney Summer Stephan objected to more than 175 eligible inmates being freed immediately.
That move, which Public Defender Randy Mize said was excessive, will lead to scores of bail disputes being heard by a judge beginning next week. Late Tuesday, Mize filed a formal objection to the San Diego Superior Court’s order on the new bail schedule, arguing it does not comply with Cantil-Sakauye’s emergency order.
The releases will lower the jail population to 4,300, the lowest it has been in years. Local criminal justice system officials including Stephan, Mize, Sheriff Bill Gore and Superior Court Presiding Jude Lorna A. Alksne have been meeting daily and working to reduce the number of inmates in order to blunt a potentially devastating spread of the COVID-19 illness among the incarcerated population and workers in those facilities.
Jails and prisons, with their crowded conditions, close confines and less than optimal sanitary conditions, can become lethal breeding grounds for the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
At a news conference Wednesday, Gore said that the jail has had three positive cases, two of which involved inmates that have since been released. Another five jail employees have also tested positive.
In the past few weeks, hundreds of inmates have been released in a variety of ways. Those who had fewer than 60 days left on a sentence were released early. Nearly 400 inmates have been released under stipulated orders worked out with defense lawyers, which allow someone to be set free with certain conditions. The individuals still remain charged and will return to court to complete their cases at some later date.
Steve Walker, the communications director for Stephan, said that prosecutors filed charges against another 60 people since mid-March when the crisis began, but those individuals were allowed to be released on their own recognizance — meaning they did not have to post bail — before they were formally arraigned. They, too, will report back.
The inmates being released this week are the product of a statewide, emergency bail schedule that Cantil-Sakauye and the state Judicial Council approved at a meeting April 6. The schedule sets $0 for nearly all misdemeanors and low-level felonies in all courts, a schedule that will last for 90 days beyond the state of emergency in place now.
At the news conference Gore said that all these steps have lowered the county jail population from 5,600 roughly a month ago to 4,345 Tuesday. Even so, the sheriff chafed at the chief justice’s order for all counties to essentially eliminate bail.
“I don’t like state mandates that treat everybody the same,” Gore said. “I think when you look at San Diego County, we were doing a responsible job of lowering our inmate population.”
Stephan also objected to parts of the sweeping order. In an April 10 letter to Cantil-Sakauye, Stephan said the emergency order went too far and said it should include a mechanism allowing for judges to review cases of some individuals who would otherwise be entitled to $0 bail.
“Release decisions should be made thoughtfully after consideration of many factors, including criminal history and current level of dangerousness, and not solely based on the present charges,” she wrote. “By setting the scheduled bail for most felony offenses at zero, our ability and opportunity to add release conditions has been curtailed, and our ability to protect the public has been taken from us.”
Walker, in an email Tuesday on the issue, said prosecutors want courts to take “a balanced and thoughtful approach that prioritizes decision-making based on fair and objective risk criteria.”
Stephan may not have swayed the chief justice but did get a judicial review condition in the San Diego Superior Court order issued by Alksne on Monday. That order allows for prosecutors to select cases in which they want bail to be increased, specific conditions of release to be set or the defendant to be held without the opportunity of posting bail.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers are then supposed to meet and try to come to agreement on those cases by the end of Thursday. If not, hearings will be held.
In the objection filed with the court, Mize said the San Diego procedure “delays and denies the mandatory resetting of bail
where the prosecution is opposed and allows only one party to request a bail hearing.”
Of the 176 cases as of Wednesday afternoon that prosecutors want reviewed, 44 involve people who have been in jail for more than a month without seeing a judge. There are seven who are charged with misdemeanors only, Mize wrote.
The local courts have been all but closed since mid-March and no arraignments have been held. The emergency order allowing the pared-down operations allows for all those closed days to be counted as court holidays, meaning the legal deadlines to bring someone to an arraignment are suspended until the courts reopen.
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