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Mayors unhappy with release of some zero bail inmates
county jail
A Stanislaus County Jail pod.

The mayors of Stanislaus County are not happy with the state agency that mandated the release of prisoners from county jails in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic.

Neither is Sheriff Jeff Dirkse.

As of Monday, April 13 as long as you don’t commit one of 13 violent felonies and the related subcategories, there is no chance of waiting in jail before appearing in court to answer to the charges against you for at least the next three months.

Even for crimes such as bringing an explosive onto an airplane, assaulting a correctional officer, or committing statutory rape, the process for the time being will be the same – a citation with a court date and a promise to appear in court.

The action is a result of an emergency meeting of the California Judicial Council which set bail statewide at $0 for misdemeanors and lower-level felonies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in county jails. Those booked for violent felonies are not eligible for the temporary bail reduction.

The Judicial Council said the order was intended to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 among a population that is not able to social distance to the extent of the general public, therefore allowing the virus to spread more easily. However, Sheriff Dirkse feels the inmates are safer in the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center in Ceres’ city jurisdiction, since none have tested positive for COVID-19. Four inmates have tested negative.

“Let’s face it, they wouldn’t have been in jail anyway if they followed the rules and so they are not inclined to follow the rules so they’re not going to be the folks that stay at home, practice social distancing,” said Dirkse. “They are kind of by definition rule breakers.”

The zero bail effort has resulted in the release of 21 from the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center as of Friday morning. Two have been rearrested for crimes committed after their release. In theory if their new charges qualify for zero bail they could be released back onto the streets again. However, said Dirkse, the county will request a bail enhancement through the courts for anyone who is rearrested “because clearly they’re not a fine, upstanding citizen.”

Normally the jail has 1,250 to 1,300 in custody. On Thursday that number was down to 1,129.

The county’s top law enforcement official said one of the released inmates was sitting behind bars for six different cases and others had four and three cases apiece.

Dirkse said it’s too early to tell if crimes have increased as a result of the releases but he fears they will. Most of those who’ve been released on zero bail have been charged with auto theft, residential burglary, petty theft, vandalism and drug possession for sales.

Dirkse said the area was already seeing an increase in certain crimes since most people are staying indoors and that this would likely amplify the rise.

“Statistically speaking we are going to see a rise in crime,” Dirkse said. “I think we will see a negative impact on our community.”

A 2018 U.S. Department of Justice report on state prisoners released in 2005, found a 68 percent were rearrested within three years, 79 percent in six years, and 83 percent in nine years.

The new order on bail does not mean charges are dropped for the released suspects. Their cases will continue to be processed through the courts.

In addition to the zero bail releases, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order on March 24 ordering California Department of Corrections to release at least 3,500 prisoners who have not completed their sentences in reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. Stanislaus County will receive about 50 of those early release prisoners, many who are homeless and have stated their address as the Modesto Gospel Mission. Dirkse said the county has been mandated by the state to help the state inmates find shelter if they need it.

The mayors of all cities but Newman signed an April 11 condemning the state actions and stated the jail is safer for inmates than being released to a society with high joblessness and not prepared to house them. They said the sheriff, not the state, is better poised to deal with virus in the jail.

“While the most serious violent crimes are excluded from this rule, this will jeopardize public safety at a time when public health and safety is already overburdened,” the letter stated. “The release of 300 additional inmates who are currently housed in the County Jail will overburden the efforts undertaken by the county and cities in supporting housing for the homeless and at-risk populations. Together these two decisions will put at least a 25 percent increase in our efforts in controlling the spread of COVID-19.”

The mayors said they are “vehemently opposed” to the release of state prisoners and noted that the release of pre-trial defendants without bail is “not in the best interest of public safety.”

Dirkse said the region hasn’t seen as many critical incidents during the shelter at home order for the entire state, but the department is seeing an uptick in certain crimes, particularly auto thefts, domestic violence, and burglaries, especially those at closed businesses.

Those criminals looking to take advantage of closed businesses will likely be facing harsher charges if caught. Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager announced on Wednesday today that anyone who commits a crime of burglary in the second degree, grand theft or petty theft, in the county, during the State of Emergency could be charged with looting.

Looting is an offense that would not automatically be granted a zero bail amount. If a defendant is charged with looting he or she will have to go before the court to address his or her custody status and will not be automatically released on zero amount bail.

A person convicted of looting must serve a mandatory minimum sentence of three to six months in jail and the court could impose an additional 80 to 240 hours of community service.

(Sabra Stafford contributed to this report).