They were accused of crimes ranging from molesting children to public lewdness. Under California state law, all were supposed to serve at least six months in jail for violating terms of their parole by evading electronic law enforcement monitoring.
Now, they’re out of jail. And a local elected prosecutor is fuming, even while some criminal justice reform advocates accuse him of inappropriately stoking public fear.
An unusual public warning
In an unusual public statement last week, Todd Spitzer, Orange County District Attorney, issued a warning to the community about seven “high risk” sex offenders released from jail before serving their full sentences, and blasted a local county commissioner who approved the release orders.
While the DA’s public warning to the community did not indicate the reason for the release of the seven named sex offenders, a spokesperson for Spitzer told CNN their understanding from the court is that commissioner Joseph Dane authorized the early releases over concerns crowded jails could serve as incubators for the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
The confrontation over the handling of inmates in southern California is the latest example of a national debate about the spread of coronavirus among prison populations. As CNN has reported, jails remain among the most potent settings for illness and death for both the incarcerated and those guarding them.
Addressing concerns about jail conditions, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes disputed the idea his county jails might be unsafe.
“We have responsibly created the capacity needed in the jail to house sex offenders and other dangerous criminals,” Barnes said in a statement. “I oppose efforts that excuse criminal behavior and jeopardize the safety of our community.”
District Attorney Spitzer echoed this sentiment in his public warning, writing the sheriff has assured him that “proper steps, including social distancing, masks, and quarantining of new inmates, are in place.”
But despite assurances from the DA and sheriff about the safety of detention facilities, Orange County jails, like correctional institutions across the country, have seen an uptick in the number of positive Covid-19 cases. Current county figures indicate 251 inmates have tested positive for the virus, up 83 cases since the beginning of the month. A spokesperson for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office tells CNN five jail employees have also tested positive for the virus.
In his public statement, Spitzer cautioned the seven defendants still pose a danger to the public due to their past criminal history, and because they had been accused of either tampering with or failing to properly charge electronic GPS devices monitored by parole officials. A spokesperson for the DA told CNN that the new release orders similarly include a provision requiring GPS monitoring.
“These kinds of high-risk sex offenders are the most dangerous kind of criminal and the most likely to re-offend,” wrote Spitzer in his public warning. “They are doing everything they can to avoid detection by the parole officers assigned to monitor them so they can potentially commit additional sex offenses.”
On that point, at least in part, Spitzer appears to be correct.
Rudy William Grajeda Magdaleno, one of the seven sex offenders included in Spitzer’s original public notice, was re-arrested last Thursday after allegedly exposing himself in public, according to a spokesperson for the DA’s office.
Magdeleno’s attorney, Sara Ross, declined to comment to CNN about the specifics of his arrest, but noted her office is filing a motion to recuse Spitzer from the case, citing his “inflammatory press releases and his incendiary comments in the media.”
An official with the Orange County Superior Court declined to comment on the commissioner’s rationale behind the early releases, noting constraints placed upon the court when it comes to publicly addressing certain legal matters.
“The court can’t discuss cases that are before the bench, as it would be against the ethical rules of the court, as set forth by the Judicial Council of California,” court spokesperson Kostas Kalaitzidis told CNN.
Orange County is not the only jurisdiction in the US to grapple with alleged recidivism by inmates released early due to Covid-19 crowding concerns.
In March, a 26-year-old Florida man in jail for possession of heroin and drug paraphernalia was one of over 100 inmates released early to curb the spread of the virus in detention centers and protect inmates and staff. The day after being released, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office says, he became the suspect in a homicide and was re-arrested on charges of second-degree murder. He now faces other charges including resisting an officer, felon in possession of a firearm, possession of heroin, and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Earlier this month in Glendora, California, police say, a suspect was arrested three times in the same day and then released due to the state’s pandemic-related zero bail policy. The separate arrests throughout the day included allegedly stealing a car, being in possession of stolen property, and then stealing another car and evading police.
Although the era of Covid-19 has included certain instances of offenders allegedly violating the law after their early release, experts say it is clear that prisons and jails remain prime hotspots for the spread of the deadly virus due to their inherently confined nature.
According to new a new study issued Wednesday from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “correctional and detention facilities face challenges in controlling the spread of infectious diseases because of crowded, shared environments and potential introductions by staff members and new intakes.”
The study states that, as of April 21, there have been 4,893 cases of Covid-19 and 88 deaths among incarcerated and detained persons, and 2,778 cases and 15 deaths among staff members.
Some prisoner-rights advocates warn that keeping inmates closely confined during the pandemic is akin to a possible death sentence – a type of cruel and unusual punishment strictly forbidden by the US Constitution.
“The reality is we should be releasing far more people and not putting more people into cages, especially during a pandemic,” said Jacob Reisberg, a jails conditions and policy advocate with the ACLU of Southern California.
Reisberg worries that public statements like the one issued by the Orange County District Attorney distort reality regarding most prisoners and could negatively impact public concern for the vulnerable prison population.
“This sort of fear mongering is exactly what leads to mass incarceration,” Reisberg said. “The model is to focus on a particular scary-sounding case, and then create a reaction or stoke fear based on that case, which really ends up having a bad result for public safety and public policy.”
Reisberg cautions he is not in favor of releasing all prisoners – especially those who pose an actual danger to the public – but believes the burden should be on law enforcement to articulate specific concerns about a particular prisoner, rather than broad-brushing the entire prison population.
He says the ACLU is not only concerned about prisoners, but also the thousands of vulnerable prison employees, guards, and their family members, who might also contract coronavirus.
“These are not normal circumstances,” Reisberg said. “To pretend we should be acting as if this is business as usual is going to put lives in jeopardy.”