California to Release 8,000 Prisoners to Ease Virus Spread

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California plans to release about 7% of its prison population, roughly 8,000 non-violent offenders, to relieve pressure on a chronically overcrowded correctional system that’s now struggling with a spike in coronavirus cases.

The move will enable prisons to maximize available space to implement physical distancing, isolation and quarantine efforts, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement Friday. It estimated that about 8,000 currently incarcerated people could be eligible for release by the end of August.

“These actions are taken to provide for the health and safety of the incarcerated population and staff,” CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz said in the statement. “We aim to implement these decompression measures in a way that aligns both public health and public safety.”

The virus has exploded at correctional facilities across the state, including an outbreak at the San Francisco Bay area’s San Quentin State Prison that infected more than 1,600 prisoners -- almost half the population -- and 200 staff.

The surge of cases has led to concerns about broader spread to the public from people who work at the complexes, as well as strained hospital resources just as California is seeing infections soar. The CDCR said that San Quentin’s current population of 3,385 should be reduced to 3,000 by early August.

Public health and criminal justice experts, as well as some elected officials, have called on Governor Gavin Newsom to release non-violent inmates -- many of them medically fragile or close to the end of their sentence -- home to their families or community organizations.

“This is a step in the right direction, but a lot more needs to be done,” said Hadar Aviram, a professor of law at UC Hastings who spearheaded an open letter to Newsom signed by hundreds of criminal justice scholars. “But it’s going to drip out. It’s not like they just fling the doors open on one day and 8,000 people come out. And while they are slowly doing this, the pandemic is still ravaging the prisons.”

California has more than 112,000 people incarcerated at 35 prisons. Some facilities have zero confirmed virus cases, but several others have struggled to contain outbreaks, including at San Quentin, Chuckawalla Valley and Avenal. As of Friday afternoon, 31 prisoners had died statewide and more than 5,600 had tested positive for Covid-19.

More than half of the prisoners who may be released are approaching the end of their sentences. CDCR estimates that 4,800 people could be eligible for release by the end of July -- those who have 180 days or less on their sentence and are not currently serving time for domestic violence or other violent crimes.

Medical care in California’s prison system has been overseen by a federal receiver since 2006. The receiver reports to the federal court, not the governor. U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar recently warned that the state needs to prepare for a surge in prison cases and set aside beds to safely isolate and quarantine those infected -- a stark challenge for a system that currently operates at 120% of its designed capacity.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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