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Coronavirus: Public defender, DA clash over early release of Santa Rita Jail inmates

Coronavirus: Public defender, DA clash over early release of Santa Rita Jail inmates 1

DUBLIN – Citing a sudden surge in positive COVID-19 tests at Santa Rita Jail, the Alameda County public defender on Thursday urged his counterpart in the district attorney’s office to immediately release all inmates with six months or less left to serve at the Dublin facility.

“We’ve been sounding the alarm for more than three weeks, and now we’re on the verge of the virus sweeping through the jail,” said Public Defender Brendon Woods in a statement. “I don’t think prosecutors have gotten the message about how serious this is. They’re moving far too slowly and now people in custody are getting sick.”

On Thursday, the sheriff’s office announced another inmate tested positive, bringing the total to 12 since Saturday. Two staff members or contractors have also tested positive.

In a statement, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said her office is doing everything it can to address the pandemic.

“This office takes very seriously the duty to balance a defendant’s rights with public safety,” O’Malley said. “It is very disappointing that the public defender has chosen this time of crisis to grandstand and to make politically divisive and disingenuous statements when what the circumstances demand of all public officials is unity and collaboration.”

O’Malley said efforts are being made on multiple fronts to shrink the jail population and include her office agreeing last month to the early release of 247 inmates with scheduled release dates up to April 30. The office has also agreed to the early release of nine inmates with “vulnerable health conditions.” Additional cases, she added, are under review.

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As of Thursday, the jail had 1,979 inmates, down from 2,597 at the beginning of March.

Woods estimated there are currently 115 people serving time who are scheduled for release in the next six months.

“We want these people out right now,” he said. “What possible justification can the DA offer to keep them locked up for more three more weeks in the midst of this virus? A county jail sentence should not be a potential death sentence.”

Woods said Santa Rita Jail risks becoming the next Cook County Jail. At the Chicago correctional facility, at least 238 of some 5,000 inmates have tested positive for the virus, according to news reports.

O’Malley said her office has a constitutional duty to protect the public from serious and violent offenders, and noted that any decisions about early release ultimately lie in the hands of judges.

“We cannot and will not agree to everyone being released from Santa Rita Jail, as we must also protect the safety of the public,” she said. “I will also note that it is the constitutional obligation of the district attorney, which we accept freely, to notify victims of crime if there is a change in circumstances, such as early release. We do all we possibly can to ensure that every victim of a charged crime understands the changes being made and why.”

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