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Sonoma County jail inmates released to prevent exposure to coronavirus

More than 200 nonviolent offenders approaching the end of their sentences and other inmates awaiting trial for low- level crimes are being released from Sonoma County jails to reduce the risk of the coronavirus entering the detention facilities.

Fifteen inmates housed in local county jails were allowed to go home on Tuesday and Wednesday, Sonoma County sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Juan Valencia said.

About 200 more people, all nonviolent offenders awaiting trial for misdemeanor offenses, have been released by judges during hearings at the Sonoma County Superior Court and are being asked to return at a later date, Sonoma County Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi said.

The strategy has led to a nearly 20% reduction in the number of inmates held in the county's two correctional facilities, where 877 inmates were confined on Thursday morning. The two jails typically hold 1,050 to 1,100 inmates, Valencia said.

Prosecutors on Wednesday additionally agreed to expand releases for inmates booked on new misdemeanor charges of driving under the influence and those convicted of the crime who can instead complete their sentences through home confinement, Pozzi said. These inmates will be required to wear tracking devices to ensure they comply with terms of their sentences.

Prior to that, early release was restricted to inmates awaiting trial for nonviolent, low-level crimes and people convicted of nonviolent misdemeanor offenses who were about two months from finishing their sentence, Pozzi said.

Officials began the process of selecting inmates to release on March 18, the first day Sonoma County public health officials ordered residents to remain in their homes for three weeks to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Pozzi said.

The releases are being done to prevent the virus from entering and spreading through the county's two adult jails, Pozzi said. Jail systems throughout the Bay Area, including in San Francisco and Alameda counties, have made similar reductions to their inmate populations since the coronavirus was discovered in the region.

No inmates or correctional staff at either the Sonoma County Jail and the North County Detention Facility had tested positive for the virus as of Thursday morning, Valencia said.

“All hell would break loose,” Pozzi said of the possibility. “Not only would it involve staff but it would involve all inmates in the jail. It would be a serious situation.”

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch has additionally asked local officers to cite and release suspects arrested on suspicion of most misdemeanors, with exceptions for people suspected of crimes such as domestic violence, or with warrants out for their arrest, Pozzi said.

Prosecutors will not agree to the release of any inmate convicted of violent crimes, including domestic violence charges, Sonoma County Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell said.

“We'll continue advocating for incarceration of those people charged with more serious offenses who do pose a danger to the public,” Staebell said.

Pozzi said she hoped to reduce the jail's population even further, saying there were more inmates who could safely be released back into the community.

“My goal is to get 30% of the average population out of the jail,” Pozzi said. “30% is who I believe are not a threat to others. They're not serious felons and they'll shelter in place.”

Pozzi's office remains open, though daily staff has dwindled to about a fifth of normal and attorneys are working in rotating shifts, she said. Attorneys are also conducting interviews with out-of-custody clients over the phone instead of in person, which can pose challenges, such as when defendants want to view body-worn camera footage relevant to their case, Pozzi said.

“We're balancing our clients' constitutional rights against a deadly virus,” Pozzi said. “And I'm obviously really concerned about our staff. We're the only ones in the courthouse that come within inches of our clients. We have to whisper into their ears.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com.

The Press Democrat wants to know what stories you see emerging and what you're experiencing locally during the shelter-in-place order. Reach out to us at coronavirus@pressdemocrat.com.

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