California may release more than 10,000 inmates in pandemic response

This July 9, 2020, file photo shows a correctional officer closing the main gate at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin which is giving more than 100,000 state inmates earlier release dates in its latest response to the pandemic, building on earlier steps that together could free nearly 10% of prisoners as Gov. Gavin Newsom responds to intensifying pressure from advocates, lawmakers and federal judges. AP photo/Eric Risberg, file photo

Don Thompson, The Associated Press

California officials will soon release another 2,100 inmates from state prisons in response to the coronavirus pandemic and additionally plans to release more than 10,000 inmates, or nearly 10% of prisoners, as Gov. Gavin Newsom responds to intensifying pressure from advocates, lawmakers and federal judges.

The latest step, outlined in a memo Thursday, June 9, is projected to free about 2,100 inmates soon by granting most a one-time, three-month credit. It follows other measures that are expected to quickly bring the releases of about 8,300 inmates six months before they normally would have been paroled.

“To continue to effectively fight this virus, we must create more space in our prisons, both to expand physical distancing to slow COVID‐19’s spread and to ease some of the immense challenges staff face every day,” Ralph Diaz, secretary of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in memo to all inmates Thursday.

He said the 12-week credit applies “to everyone in CDCR custody” except those who are on death row, serving life-without-parole or who have a serious rules violation between March 1 and July 5.

It means the credit applies to about 108,000 inmates, the department estimated, and makes about 2,100 eligible for release as soon as next month. Among them are inmates in state firefighting camps that have seen dwindling numbers as the earlier releases have mounted.

Officials said Thursday the new program would bring the swift release of 3,100 inmates and the previously announced programs about 7,000 inmates, but revised the estimated Friday, June 10.

In addition, officials announced two targeted early release programs Friday. They cannot estimate how many will be released under those policies because there are too many variables, said representative Dana Simas.

Inmates with less than a year left to serve can be released if they are at one of eight prisons that have large populations of medically vulnerable prisoners. Unlike with the 12-week program, they can’t be sex offenders or serving time for domestic violence or a violent crime. Those age 30 and up are eligible for immediate release, while there will be a case-by-case review for younger inmates.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some – especially older adults and people with existing health problems – it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

And systemwide, those vulnerable to virus complications can seek earlier parole. It includes those over age 65 with chronic illnesses or those with respiratory problems like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. They can’t be considered high risks for violence or sex offenses.

The department is also considering releasing those who are pregnant or in hospice care.

It previously halted intake from jails during the pandemic, leaving 7,000 convicts in local lockups to further reduce prison crowding.

Diaz announced the blanket 12-week credit just hours after Newsom seemingly again rejected increasingly strident calls for the wholesale release of inmates particularly as an uncontrolled outbreak sweeps through San Quentin State Prison after a botched transfer of infected inmates.

State lawmakers and advocates gathered Thursday at the prison north of San Francisco to call for more releases, and Newsom met recently with one of two federal judges who are taking preliminary steps to order widespread releases.

But the governor seemed to criticize those calling for freeing inmates without careful individual consideration.

“When people are just saying just release thousands and thousands of people, I hope they’re being thoughtful and considerate of not only the victims but the prospects of people reoffending,” Newsom said Thursday.

Assemblymember Marc Levine, a fellow Democrat from the San Francisco Bay Area who has been one of the most critical of the San Quentin outbreak, also criticized the department for including those serving sentences for serious, violent or sex crimes in the 12-week releases, unlike the criteria for other early release programs. He said freeing those inmates shows the department “is in panic mode.”

Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco called the releases “a positive step” but said they don’t go far enough to reduce the population of prisons he said “were overcrowded and in urgent need of reduction before the pandemic.”

Californians for Safety and Justice executive director Jay Jordan, whose organizations supports lower criminal penalties, noted the irony that Newsom put a moratorium on executions, “yet people are being killed in prisons by way of COVID-19. There is a moral imperative for bolder action.”

But Nina Salarno, president of Crime Victims United, said the state is ignoring crime victims while “releasing the worst of the worst right now.”

Christine Ward, executive director of Crime Victims Alliance, said she’s concerned that virus outbreaks have given Newsom “the perfect storm” to proceed with his stated goal of closing two of the state’s 35 prisons.

“This pandemic should not be used as a launching board to empty prisons as ultimately it will negatively impact the public’s safety,” she said in a written statement.