Opinion: County must re-think release of dangerous pandemic-era inmates
Santa Clara County has quietly undergone a pandemic-era experiment of releasing unprecedented numbers of jail inmates. Before the county Board of Supervisors pursues its policy of “depopulating the jail” any further, it should heed the lessons of our recent experience.
In November of 2020, San Jose police arrested a 29-year-old man for alleged child molestation. The next day, a Superior Court judge released the defendant without bail — over the objection of the Santa Clara County District Attorney. The defendant fled to Texas before his next court date. After his extradition to Santa Clara County, the defendant was again released — again over the DA’s objection — on bail.
If this amounted to an isolated case, we should hesitate to draw conclusions. It’s not. A homicide arrestee in January 2021 fled to Mexico post-release. Two homicide arrestees were released without bail in October of 2021. Last year’s pretrial release of arrestee Harry Goularte captured national attention when he became the subject of retribution by former UFC champion Cain Velasquez, a frustrated relative of the child victim of Goularte’s alleged molestation.
The data appears equally troubling. According to county data, nearly half of our released defendants violated their conditions of release, committed a new crime, or failed to appear in court:
To be fair, this “experiment” had understandable origins: Efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID within county jails thinned inmate populations to about half of the jails’ capacity. It forced judges to issue an emergency judicial bail schedule to release arrestees who otherwise might have had bail or detention orders. Puzzling interpretations of a recent California Supreme Court decision spurred yet more releases, despite that Court’s reaffirmation of the constitutional authority to detain defendants where “public or victim safety, or the arrestee’s appearance in court, cannot be reasonably assured if the arrestee is released.”
Regardless, our community feels the impact. Spanish-speaking moms in the Washington Guadalupe neighborhood say they can’t let their kids play outside for fear of three men routinely arrested for picking fights and threatening neighbors. A downtown San Jose restaurant manager expresses helplessness about repeated burglaries by the same thieves. Our police officers arrest “frequent flyers” only to see them released within hours; SJPD arrested 30 individuals more than 10 times for separate offenses in a single, 14-month period.
Some released arrestees commit petty theft. Others do far worse, as with the February 2019 homicide of Bambi Larson or the November 2020 stabbing of residents at a homeless shelter.
As the jail population declined in 2020, rapes, robberies, assaults, and domestic violence calls increased. We experienced this troubling surge despite recent years’ net addition of 228 officers to SJPD’s force and despite the expansion of crime prevention programs, including investment in educational support and jobs for young adults, neighborhood empowerment, gang prevention, and response to mental health crises. Of course, we must exercise caution before attributing crime to any one factor among many complex causes, but jail releases didn’t help.
Fortunately, in recent months, the courts consolidated felony arraignments before a single judge. Doing so has improved the consistency of pretrial release decisions and stabilized the jail population, albeit at historically low levels.
Have we learned anything from this experiment? Since November 2020, the Board of Supervisors repeatedly reaffirmed the County’s “commit(ment) to reducing the County jail population,” yet public meetings rarely include any inquiry about the impact of jail depopulation on crime in our most vulnerable neighborhoods. Judges will soon revise the bail order, yet their options remain constrained by shrinking jail capacity — the county plans to supplant the aging main jail with a smaller version, for example — and by the countywide paucity of inpatient drug treatment and mental health beds.
We should support alternatives to detention when they can be implemented safely. But too often, that’s not happening. The jail — though poorly managed — has a purpose. Until the county and state develop vastly more extensive inpatient drug treatment and mental health options, the jail remains essential to the safety of the community and the integrity of the criminal justice system.
We should not return to the injustices of mass incarceration nor to the excesses of “mandatory minimum” sentencing laws. Let’s simply heed the failures of pandemic-era releases and halt a pendulum that has swung too far — and too unsafely. Chart a safer path.
Sam Liccardo is mayor of San Jose.
Originally published at https://www.mercurynews.com on May 9, 2022.