State Watch

California to release up to 3,500 non-violent inmates amid coronavirus outbreak

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California is planning to release as many as 3,500 non-violent inmates from its state prisons in an effort to reduce crowding amid an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced on Tuesday that it would expedite the transition to parole for nonviolent offenders with 60 days or less left on their sentences, with priority going to individuals with less than 30 days left.

The CDCR also said that it would temporarily suspend intake from county jails, a move that could reduce the prison population by an additional 3,000 within a month. 

“We do not take these new measures lightly. 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,” CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz said in a statement. “However, in the face of a global pandemic, we must consider the risk of COVID-19 infection as a grave threat to safety, too.”

California had reported roughly 6,900 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 150 deaths stemming from it as of Tuesday afternoon. The CDCR said that 22 of its employees and four inmates were among those to have tested positive. 

The rapid outbreak of the virus has led to increasing calls for officials around the country to enforce measures designed to stem crowding in U.S. prisons. Jacqueline Sherman, New York City’s Board of Correction’s interim chairwoman, warned earlier this month that the city’s jail system was facing a health crisis after several inmates and staff members tested positive. 

The American Civil Liberties Union also sent letters to officials at all levels of the justice system asking them to consider releasing inmates who are considered vulnerable due to their age or underlying health conditions.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced on Tuesday that the city had released 900 nonviolent inmates as part of its prevention efforts. 

It was not immediately clear when California would begin releasing inmates. In addition to the release of inmates, the CDCR is also planning to begin mandatory verbal and temperature screenings for staff and temporarily ban inmate visitation.

The department said that it is also working to expand space in community-based parolee programs for those at risk of homelessness. 

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