ACLU denounces district attorney for opposing early release

District Attorney Tim Ward said state’s emergency order for $0 bail release should still be decided by a judge

TULARE COUNTY – The American Civil Liberties Union is denouncing Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward’s court motions opposing the release of inmates under the state’s no cash bail order.

In a May 6 statement, ACLU Foundation of Northern California said it “condemns” Ward’s filing of hundreds of motions opposing the early release of individuals whose alleged offenses fall within the $0 bail list. The organization also said Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager was “similarly defiant” charging burglaries, grand theft, and petty theft as looting to get around the bail schedule and keep people in custody.

“Both of these elected District Attorneys are deliberately ignoring the advice of medical experts, choosing to flout mandatory statewide directives intended to save lives by reducing the number of people held in pretrial detention,” the organization said in the statement.

On April 6, the California Judicial Council, which oversees the state’s court system, approved 11 temporary emergency rules, including setting bail statewide at $0 for misdemeanors and lower-level felonies to “safely reduce jail populations.” The rule remains in effect until 90 days after the Governor lifts the state of emergency due to COVID-19. Crimes exempt from the no bail rule are murder, rape, assault, battery, arson, robbery, kidnapping, drug dealing, carjacking, grand theft, child molestation, resisting arrest, weapons charges, witness intimidation, extortion, filing a false report, falsifying evidence, criminal threats, restraining order violations, failure to register as a sex offender, DUI, rioting and looting. Defendants with prior convictions categorized as “strike offenses” and violations of probation or parole are also eligible for $0 bail.

“It applies to every accused person arrested and in pretrial custody,” the ACLU said. “This schedule has the greatest impact on low-income black and brown people who are disproportionately unable to afford bail and, as recent statewide COVID-19 demographic data shows, are at higher risk of infection and death.”

Statewide there have been about 600 cases among prison inmates, primarily at the California Institution for Men in Chino, Calif. As of press time, there were only five deaths in a prison population of more than 115,000 statewide. The state does not track inmate populations in county jails.

The ACLU’s assumption is true for Latinos, which are slightly more than one-third (38.9%) of the state’s population but represent more than half (52.6%) of the cases, but represent about one-third of deaths (36.7%), nearly the same as the white population (34.3%). Black residents are about 6% of the population and represent 5.9% of cases but have a mortality rate that is nearly twice that (10.1%).

The ACLU contends that early release is the only way to control the spread of COVID-19 among inmates. Public health experts agree that reducing jail and prison populations is a medical necessity. Incarcerated people face unsanitary conditions and cannot socially distance, making jails a hotspot for COVID-19 outbreaks.

But that is not the case in Tulare County, where there is no overcrowding and there were no cases of coronavirus as of press time. The Sheriff’s Department said it has about 700 beds available in its jails and had already implemented precautions to protect inmates and jailors from contracting and spreading coronavirus and to safely release inmates who were not a threat to public safety. Sheriff Mike Boudreaux said his office has instituted plans to quarantine inmates with the virus. Any inmate testing positive for the virus will immediately be placed into isolation in a reverse air flow cell, meaning air is pumped into the cell but is not connected to the ducting network for cells housing the general population.

“It is my job to ensure public safety and one way that I can guarantee that is to let an offender remain in jail,” Ward said.

Ward said the Judicial Council’s ruling lacked specificity when it comes to repeat offenders, those most likely to reoffend after being released. Ward said there have been a half dozen no bail releases who have been rearrested, most of them for committing similar crimes, including a Tulare woman who was arrested a week after being released. Nikki Gonzales, 32, of Tulare was granted $0 bail release on April 29. On May 5, she was arrested for allegedly stealing items at a Tulare drugstore. In total, Gonzales has 14 open criminal cases including the recent misdemeanor charge. Her most serious case alleges two felony counts of bringing both drugs and weapons into the jail. Her next court date is May 26, 2020, to set a preliminary hearing on her felony case. In 2020 alone, Gonzales has been charged with 12 separate misdemeanor cases, which include charges for possession of stolen property, petty theft, trespassing, shoplifting, resisting/delaying arrest, under the influence of narcotics, drunk in public and looting.

“What we have right now is truly a revolving door in jail where criminals are released to commit the same types of crimes again,” Ward said. “There needs to be more guidance on chronic offenders and a way to keep them in jail.”

Ward does not deny charging residents with looting and in fact announced it when it happened. In addition to Gonzales, Ward charged six adults and five juveniles with burglary and looting, as well as resisting arrest and providing false information to officers, after they were arrested for breaking into the Jalisco Meat Market in downtown Visalia on April 21. Police followed a trail of meat to their apartment where officers found them cooking some of stolen meat for a small gathering and burglary tools.

The DA also points out that the ACLU incorrectly assumes that his motions are in defiance of the court order. Ward said the April 6 order clearly states that “Nothing in the Emergency Bail Schedule restricts the ability of the court to deny bail as authorized by article I, section 12 of the California Constitution,” which states that “the court shall take into consideration the seriousness of the offense charged, the previous criminal record of the defendant, and the probability of his or her appearing at the trial or hearing of the case” and that anyone released on their own recognizance is at the court’s direction. Ward said the clause is important because it ensures that anyone who is an immediate danger to the public or a flight risk is brought before a judge, an elected official, for the public to weigh in whether or not the inmate’s health risk outweighs the risk to public safety.

“Nothing in the order negates a judge’s discretion to set terms for bail,” Ward said. “We are doing everything we can to ensure that each and every one of these cases goes before a judge as the law intended.”

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