LOS ANGELES, April 1, 2020 (AFP) - The prison system in the largest US state of California plans to release about 3,500 non-violent inmates early to help mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 illness, officials said Tuesday.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) said the first group of inmates released will be those with less then 30 days to serve, followed by those with fewer than 60 days of their sentences left.
Other US jurisdictions, including the state of New Jersey and some cities, have announced similar measures. US Attorney General Bill Barr last week said he told federal prisons to free some inmates to lessen the impact of the pandemic, with possibly 2,000 inmates eligible.
"We do not take these new measures lightly," Ralph Diaz, secretary of the California corrections agency, said in a statement.
"Our first commitment at CDCR is ensuring safety -- of our staff, of the incarcerated population, of others inside our institutions, and of the community at large," he added. "However, in the face of a global pandemic, we must consider the risk of COVID-19 infection as a grave threat to safety, too."
Authorities said the early releases will increase both capacity and physical space at the state's prisons where 22 employees and four inmates have tested positive for the virus.
The prisons have instituted other measures to prevent the spread of the virus, including mandatory medical screenings for anyone entering the institutions and suspension of visitation.
Inmates are being offered additional free phone calls to their loved ones to compensate the loss of their visitation rights.
The early release measure has not gone down well with everyone. One prosecutor said it will lead to dangerous criminals back on the streets.
"This will become the slippery slope for everybody," Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer told local media. "If they're doing it at the state level, they'll do it at the county jails. That's why gun sales are going up."
In a bid to limit the spread of new coronavirus behind bars, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has already ordered the release of about 1,700 inmates from local jails, leaving about 15,000 people locked in those facilities.
Jails in the United States typical house people awaiting trial or serving short sentences for misdemeanor crimes. Prisons are longer-term facilities that hold felons and people serving sentences of more than one year.
Sheila Kuehl, a member of the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors and co-author of a motion calling for health officials to assess conditions in county jails, said on Tuesday that discussions were underway to release everyone with less than six months left to serve.
She acknowledged, however, that public safety concerns had to be considered.
Fellow supervisor Kathryn Barger said she wanted to ensure the inmates released had a place to go but favored calls to decrease the jail population.
"By starting to depopulate... I know we're saving lives," she said at a meeting of the Board on Tuesday.