Updated 6:18 p.m.
Up to 8,000 California inmates could be granted early release in the coming weeks under guidelines approved by Gov. Gavin Newsom Friday.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced the move as it grapples with COVID-19 outbreaks that have infected thousands of inmates and staff. The new guidelines allow certain nonviolent offenders whose prison sentence ends within 180 days to have their release moved up.
Inmates with six-12 months left on their sentence can also be screened for early release if they are living at one of a handful of facilities CDCR says houses “large populations of high-risk patients,” including San Quentin, the California Institution for Men, California Institution for Women, Folsom State Prison and others.
The extra space will allow facilities to better implement physical distancing, isolation and quarantine efforts, CDCR said in a news release.
An outbreak at San Quentin, the state’s oldest correctional facility, has left more than 1,300 inmates infected and seven dead. Statewide, more than 7,000 people who live and work in CDCR’s facilities have contracted the virus and 31 inmates have died.
“These actions are taken to provide for the health and safety of the incarcerated population and staff,” CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz said. “We aim to implement these decompression measures in a way that aligns both public health and public safety.”
In the news release announcing the move, CDCR said inmates will be tested for COVID-19 within seven days of release. The department said it is also working to notify the victims of those who committed the crimes and ensure released inmates will have housing.
Newsom has expressed concern about that issue, saying on Wednesday: “What I can’t do is release people to the streets and sidewalks and park benches and call that compassion.”
The state previously granted early release for inmates in late March, after the coronavirus was first detected in some facilities.
Advocates, doctors and lawmakers have recently ramped up pressure on the governor to implement better medical oversight and reduce overcrowding in the prison system, which for years has been over capacity.
Jay Jordan, executive director of the criminal justice reform group Californians for Safety and Justice, called the announcement “a step in the right direction.”
“This is just a process of accelerating people who are coming home already to come home quicker and to come home safely,” he said. “There is a moral imperative for bolder action to reduce overcrowding in our prisons.”
Assemblyman Marc Levine, who represents the Bay Area district where San Quentin is located, echoed that sentiment.
I spoke to Newsom's team to ensure that this inmate release prioritizes low risk, medically vulnerable inmates that are not serving sentences for serious, violent, domestic violence or sex crimes. This release is one of many steps to fix this broken system https://t.co/S80EKMPj77— Assemblymember Marc Levine (@AsmMarcLevine) July 10, 2020
Levine previously called the San Quentin outbreak “the worst prison health screw-up in state history.”
Nina Salarno Besselman, president of Crime Victims United of California, criticized the decision, calling it “an affront to crime victims and a serious risk to public health and safety.”
“If the state is truly concerned about protecting 'its most vulnerable,' then they should be doing everything they can to make sure our frontline responders have the protection, resources and support they need to get us through this crisis," she said.
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