The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office is rapidly releasing inmates in county jails in order to minimize the risk of the coronavirus spreading to people who are incarcerated locally.
Between Feb. 29 and April 13, the sheriff's office released 382 inmates, lowering occupancy at the county's two correctional facilities to 39% of total capacity.
Inmates have been released in two phases, according to San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe. Initially, all prisoners who were within 60 days of completing the sentences they were serving were released.
Most inmates who are 65 and older have been released; those who have not are being monitored by medical staff, said Sheriff Carlos Bolanos in a recent update to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.
Those in custody were evaluated based on an inmate's risk to public safety, age and medical condition, as well as pregnancy, he said.
More prisoners were released following an April 6 announcement from the California Judicial Council, which enacted a number of emergency rules, including setting bail at $0 for most misdemeanor and low-level felony crimes, allowing some court operations to be done remotely, suspending proceedings for evictions and prioritizing juvenile justice proceedings.
With only about four days to decide who gets out and who stays, the county ultimately released roughly 132 pre-conviction inmates, Wagstaffe said.
In addition, as of April 14, about 21 juvenile detainees had been released, leaving about 20 in custody, according to San Mateo County's Chief Probation Officer John Keene.
For those who are incarcerated, additional efforts are being taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Everyone who enters the jail is screened for symptoms, and all programs with outside personnel have been canceled. Nonessential contractors are also restricted from entering jails, Bolanos said. And a number of court operations are now being conducted over video.
Meanwhile, those in the county's probation department working with the newly released inmates are doing what they can to adapt to the "new normal," Keene said in an interview.
So far, the probation department is continuing to check in with people on probation, including doing in-person visits wearing personal protective equipment.
One challenge of the mass releases is to make sure that public safety isn't being jeopardized, he said.
"I don't think it helps public safety to release people that may not necessarily be safe to do so," he said.
"At this point, we have not seen a huge spike in crime or anything of that nature," he said.
Public health directives state that released individuals must stay at home with their families, which may be keeping people from coming into contact with the justice system, he said.
In addition, they're monitoring particularly closely people who have histories of domestic or child abuse.
The county is "pretty well-positioned" to provide resources like mental and behavioral health services to the newly released inmates, Keene said.
But it's often the formerly incarcerated whose past records make it difficult to find housing and work even on a good day – let alone in the middle of a global pandemic and severe economic contraction. And those challenges to find work and housing are likely to get harder as the economy worsens.
Keene said that he's been working in law enforcement for 32 years and has seen several recessions.
The county support for those released from jail, like housing, educational opportunities and mental health services, are "going to be stretched tremendously going into this new reality," he said.
Some, such as people who are considered higher-risk for developing complications from COVID-19 will qualify for additional protections, such as temporary housing in hotel rooms, but many won't, he said.
"It was so sudden that I suspect the inmates were released with little to no assistance. That is why we expect we will get a good number of them back into the criminal justice system fairly quickly," Wagstaffe said in an email.