January 19, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Cities support O.C. sheriff’s policies on inmates during pandemic

The city of Newport Beach filed an amicus brief in support of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department late last week, while Costa Mesa issued its own brief with the same intent.

The briefs come in response to a ruling in a lawsuit by Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson, ordering that the jail population be reduced in response to the coronavirus. The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in April.

Wilson ruled Dec. 11 that Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes had shown “deliberate indifference” to the substantial risk that the coronavirus can pose to medically vulnerable people in custody, which in turn violates their constitutional rights.

The judge ordered Barnes to reduce jail populations by 50%, which includes all dormitory- and barracks-style housing. Additionally, the sheriff must provide a release plan by Thursday that identifies all medically at-risk inmates and outline measures to protect those identified that Barnes does not intend to release or transfer.

Barnes said in a statement on Dec. 16 that the order could mean the release of hundreds of inmates, who could potentially include those charged with serious or violent crimes. There are about 700 medically vulnerable individuals in custody.

Twenty cities joined the brief filed by Newport Beach: Cypress, Dana Point, Garden Grove, La Habra, Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Lake Forest, Huntington Beach, Mission Viejo, Orange, Placentia, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Stanton, Westminster, Tustin, Yorba Linda and Villa Park.

In a statement, Newport Beach officials said that the court ruling did not provide adequate discretion to Barnes and that it failed to acknowledge previous efforts made by the county to mitigate the virus.

Since March, about 691 inmates at Orange County jail have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The brief argues that the order also fails to consider the effect that newly released inmates would have on Orange County cities and that there is no evidence that release of individuals in custody would prevent them from contracting the virus, pointing to increasing case counts.

It also acknowledges the recent approval of the Moderna-National Institutes of Health vaccine and distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“The issues here are immediate, profound and far-reaching and for these reasons the court of appeal should take this matter on an expedited basis and reverse the respondent court’s order,” the brief reads, adding that the pandemic requires prompt action but that it does not justify the mandatory release of prisoners.

The Newport Beach City Council voted unanimously to file the brief during a Dec. 18 special meeting.

Newport Beach Mayor Brad Avery said in a statement on the day of the vote that the issue was “very concerning for our residents and business” and that council members have received many emails in support of the filing of the amicus brief.

“We know this a difficult time for everyone, given the state of the pandemic,” Avery said. “However, Sheriff Barnes has taken significant action to keep inmates safe. Releasing potentially dangerous criminals into the community is not the answer.”

The city of Costa Mesa did not join Newport Beach’s effort and, instead, wrote its own amicus brief, in which officials claimed city services may become “more strenuously taxed” by the release of numerous inmates into the community.

Filed Thursday by Costa Mesa City Atty. Kimberly Barlow, the brief urged the court to consider the ramifications of the release on the agencies and jurisdictions that would be affected by such an order.

“The safety and security of all Orange County residents is at stake, as well as the many thousands within the city of Costa Mesa, and in addition to the potentially severe impacts on city and countywide services and/or other impacts on city or community resources from such a sudden influx of jail inmates,” it reads.

Nguyen writes for the Times Community News.