California Gov. Gavin Newsom Poised to Release 8,000 ‘Most Dangerous’ Prisoners to Prevent Virus Spread

FILE - In this May 9, 2019 file photo Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses his revised 2019-2020 st
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has already released thousands of prisoners into communities across the state and now he is poised to release as many as 8,000 more by end of July, a move said to be necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

This development, which the state announced on Friday, comes after the head of medical services for the state’s prison system was replaced following an inmate infection spike after more than 100 prisoners where transferred from the California Institution for Men in Chino from San Quentin.

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

The Los Angeles Times reported on Newsom’s plan:

Initial prisoner releases would come from those with 180 days or less left to serve on their sentence. No one serving time for a crime defined in state law as violent or involving domestic violence would be set free, officials said. Those required to register as sex offenders or who are assessed as being a high risk for violence would also be ineligible for early release.

The second group of prisoners who could be released would have no more than one year left to serve. The releases are aimed at reducing the populations at eight state prisons identified as higher risk for coronavirus transmissions. The same eligibility rules as the first group of released prisoners would apply in these releases.

In all cases, prison officials said, priority will be given to those who are 30 or older. Prisoners under the age of 30 will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“This is serious stuff and requires a seriousness of purpose,” Newsom said in the Times report. “People are just saying just release thousands and thousands of people.”

“Each and every one of these cases are sobering, challenging, and there’s a deep responsibility that comes with this job, but a sense of deep urgency as well to decompress the system in a judicious and thoughtful way,” Newsom said.

At least one official has expressed concern about the threat to public safety.

Vern Pierson, the D.A. in Northern California’s El Dorado County, called it “concerning” for public safety, and said the criteria being used to decide which inmates to release is unclear. 

“The Newsom administration also has not made clear whether crime victims and prosecutors will be given notice when an inmate is released or if they will be able to file objections, said Pierson, who serves as president of the California District Attorneys Assn,” the Times reported.

“We don’t know what the actual impact of this is going to be. We do know that it’s a high likelihood there will be significant increases in crime,” said Pierson, who added that earlier releases of non-violent prisoners means that those still incarcerated represent the most serious offenders.

“It’s inescapable that it’s the most dangerous people that are the people that are left in prison,” Pierson said.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that, as of Wednesday, an estimated 104,725 individuals are imprisoned in California’s 35 institutions. Nearly 20,000 inmates would need to be released just to reach 100 percent capacity in the system.

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