Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said some jail inmates are trying to use a “get out of jail free card” during the new coronavirus pandemic which has killed 19 people.
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As of Tuesday, there were nearly 1,300 confirmed virus cases, with 122 people in the hospital.
During an update to county supervisors Tuesday, Spitzer said since the county’s top law enforcement officials have come to an agreement to thin the jail population to combat the virus spread, prosecutors are fighting about 300 cases of people trying to get out on bail.
He gave an example of three separate cases — theft, sexual assault and a murder — of people who tried to apply for early release.
“Just in those three examples I think you can appreciate that this pandemic has been exploited as a get out of jail free card. In other words, they’re individuals who have no business being released,” Spitzer said at Tuesday’s County supervisors meeting.
“Some of these individuals we’re litigating and forcing the bench to have to hear these cases and deny these motions to get out is downright frustrating to me,” he said.
The cases prosecutors are fighting are for people who have not yet been convicted.
After a person is convicted and sentenced, an early release decision falls to Sheriff Don Barnes, who has been releasing non-violent and medically vulnerable inmates early in an effort to thin out the jails.
During Tuesday’s update, Sheriff Cmdr. Joe Balicki said 13 people tested positive for the virus, out of the 40 quarantined in the Central Jail. There were also three deputies who tested positive.
The sheriff’s department has essentially locked down the Central Jail in Santa Ana to help limit the spread. Instead of hitting the chow hall, inmates now eat meals inside their cells or barracks, depending on where they’re housed.
Balicki said inmates are given non-medical grade masks when they’re going to court or to a medical appointment.
Spitzer on Tuesday told County Supervisors the jailhouse population was hovering around 2,300, an estimate he later corrected to roughly 3,400 based on information offered by the sheriff’s department.
When the sheriff’s department began early releases late last month, the jail population was roughly 5,500, according to a department news release.
Meanwhile, officials are trying to figure out who’s going to cover the rest of the bill for 550 hotel and motel rooms to isolate sick and medically vulnerable homeless people during the pandemic.
Sacramento is mandating counties across California house elderly and medically vulnerable homeless people in hotel rooms in order to thin out shelter populations to help curb the spread of the virus. People who’ve tested positive for the virus will also be housed in single rooms.
“Are we going to, in fact, get paid if we have done, in fact, closer to what the state expected and end up with too many hotel rooms?” Supervisor Don Wagner asked at Tuesday’s meeting.
County CEO Frank Kim said the Federal Emergency Management Administration will cover 75 percent of the costs and OC will be asking the state to cover the remaining costs.
The hotel effort ran into a snag early on, when residents from Laguna Woods protested the use of Ayres Hotel earlier this month. The hotel backed out of the contract with the County.
Meanwhile, the County is finalizing 545 hotel rooms spread throughout the County, along with opening up the former Joplin detention center in Trabuco Canyon to house homeless people.
County officials said there’s a hotel in Stanton, Orange and Laguna Hills. They’re also finalizing a lease in an Anaheim hotel.
Kim said the state’s been pressuring the County for more hotel rooms.
“I may feel, even though i’m not a homeless expert, that we have enough hotel beds. But the state keeps pressing us to get more and more … then we work with them to build out that capacity whether we need it or not,” Kim said “So we’re building really a scalable response system.”
He said the planning started weeks ago, when projections on the incoming surge were higher than what state officials are now expecting.
“Whether we’re planning for a motel operator or planning for Fairview or any other events, it takes us at least three to four weeks before a facility comes online and is available,” Kim said.
There was also confusion about who would sign the hotel and motel leases — either the County or the state, Kim said.
“Our understanding was, from our conversations, that they would execute on those leases and we would come in with our provider … they determine that it was more appropriate to allow local jurisdictions to execute those contracts,” Kim said.
County homeless services coordinator, Jason Austin, said the county is leasing out entire hotels and motels, not just a certain amount of rooms.
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said many of the rooms may not be used, depending on how the next few weeks play out.
“The population down there (south county) is hopefully healthy or will stay healthy and we may never use the facility,” Bartlett said.
“They will have everything set in place and ready to go and it may never be utilized, but under the mandate at the state level, we were mandated to get these places to set up,” she said.
Austin said there have been 11 homeless people who used a north county hotel and there’s currently 9 people housed there.
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County:
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
Digital Editor Sonya Quick contributed to this story. You can reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @sonyanews.
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