Sheriff Mike Downey says the jail will continue to release inmates during late night and early morning hours, despite a recent recommendation from the Humboldt County grand jury to halt the practice.
The grand jury also suggests that the county jail may be violating state law by not providing inmates arrested at distant locations a way to get home, and recommends that cash confiscated during bookings be returned upon an inmate's release. Downey says the county is looking into how it can help released prisoners get home, and that a policy change made earlier this year gives confiscated cash back to short-term inmates.
The practice of releasing people from the jail in the late night and early morning hours came under scrutiny after the killing of St. Bernard Pastor Father Eric Freed on Jan. 1, allegedly at the hands of a man who had been arrested in Redway on the afternoon of Dec. 31 and released in downtown Eureka — blocks from where Freed slept — after midnight. In May, following a town hall meeting that grew heated at times, the sheriff's office announced a change in policy: It would offer inmates the option to stay in jail until morning. (Three to five inmates per week asked for such a thing, according to a sheriff's office press release at the time.) Jail Capt. Ed Wilkinson said 717 people have been released between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. since the policy was modified on March 17. "I believe the changes made to our policy has increased the level of safety for the individual being released and the safety to the community, while ensuring the individual retains his or her rights," Wilkinson said.
The grand jury report cites three deaths that have occurred in the last year "involving early morning releases from the jail," and says "the people of Humboldt County would be better served if Humboldt County Correctional Facility stopped releasing inmates between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m."
But Downey said the jail will not follow the grand jury's recommendation. "It's one I'm not going to be able to comply with," he said. Previously, Downey, citing constitutional concerns (which he reiterated to the grand jury during its investigation), explained that the jail holds people arrested on suspicion of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol until they are determined to be sober and not a danger to themselves or others. If sobriety comes at 3 a.m., that's when the jail lets them out. The jail also sometimes releases inmates during late-night/early morning hours when they've completed a sentence.
On Aug. 11, Downey again defended the practice, saying that intoxicated people aren't typically going to be charged with a crime — making it questionable to hold them for longer than the period in which they are unable to care for themselves. He said the policy is modeled after a 10-year-old senate bill that was never ratified, which "clearly states that the person would have to voluntarily stay in jail." With 3,500 people booked for disorderly conduct a year, "you can see how problematic that would be to house everyone," Downey continued.
But in its report released Aug. 6, the grand jury determined that Downey's constitutional concerns weren't likely to have actual legal impacts (the Journal noted in the January story "Dead of Night" that at least six other jails around the state hold people until daylight hours, without legal challenge). The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that jails can legally hold people for 48 hours before they must be brought before a judge. Releasing an inmate prior to that period, if no further proceedings are desired, is discretionary, the grand jury determined.
"In a situation where the safety of the community is at issue, the jury believes that it is extremely unlikely that any court will hold that the sheriff is violating the law by deciding that the exercise of such discretion should not occur between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. when the exercise of that discretion can put the community at risk," the report states. "The sheriff should order that no decision as to whether or not 'no further proceedings are desirable' will be made between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m."
In addition, the grand jury found that the Humboldt County jail may be violating California law by not providing transport for people arrested in the far reaches of the county.
"California Penal Code Section 686.5 mandates that for an indigent person who is arrested 'more than 25 airline miles' from where he or she is released from custody and who will not be charged, 'the arresting agency shall, at his request, return or provide for return of such person to the place of his arrest.' Humboldt County Correctional Facility staff told us they do not routinely follow this policy," the report reads.
Downey appears to be taking the grand jury's recommendation that the sheriff's office work with the Humboldt Transit Authority to provide bus tickets for indigent inmates, saying that he's looking at options with county counsel and the transit authority. "We're looking at trying to put together some type of voucher program," he said.
It's unclear at this point how that will work, as the grand jury's recommendation in part relied on the end of night-time releases.
"Generally speaking the early morning buses are not crowded and making bus tickets available would be virtually cost free as the buses will run in any case," the report says. Downey acknowledged that bus vouchers won't do much for a person released when buses aren't running. "It'd be on the timeline of the bus system," he said. "They have to wait for the buses to start."
If the place of arrest was not accessible by public transit, the report goes on, the jail must make other arrangements. Downey said the county is considering taxi service or other options.
Finally, the grand jury recommended that inmates be given back any cash they were booked with upon release. Currently, the jail returns cash to people booked on short disorderly conduct holds, but returns a credit card to inmates housed for longer periods of time, Downey says.
The entire grand jury report, which is investigated and written by citizens serving a one year term, can be found on the county's website at http://co.humboldt.ca.us/grandjury/default.asp. In addition to the jail release report, the jury touches on county code enforcement, road maintenance, disaster preparedness and other matters.