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HumCo: Jail Release Dilemmas

A community forum on county jail release policies put questions to a local panel whose members in turn asked residents to consider what they can do to effect change.

Faced with obvious dissatisfaction over late night releases from the county jail, panelists said they’re open to suggestions but the community itself has to decide and act on solutions.

An audience of almost 100 people was at Eureka’s Wharfinger Building on Feb. 26 to interact with a local panel that included the county’s sheriff, district attorney, public defender, human services director, probation director and Eureka’s police chief.

They were there to offer perspectives on the issue, which has been highly talked about following the brutal murder of Father Eric Freed, the pastor of Eureka’s St. Bernard’s Church.

Sponsored by the Eureka Interfaith Fellowship, the forum covered a wide range of topics related to incarceration and releases in early a.m. hours when transportation and services are shut down.

Sheriff Mike Downey said his office handled 2,600 disorderly conduct intoxication cases in 2013 and standard practice is to hold people who under the influence of drugs or alcohol for four to eight hours, until they’re sober.

They’re assessed when they’re admitted and released, Downey continued, but there’s no authority to hold them if there’s no further indication of being intoxicated. Released people can stay in the jail’s lobby until morning, he said, but aren’t obliged to do so.

“The problems come in when we no longer have a custodial relationship with that person,” said Downey.

Undersheriff Billy Honsal said the Sheriff’s Office, which manages the county jail, wants to be responsive to community concerns – and that the community can also be responsive.

“Are there areas where we can partner with the community to offer a sobering station – somewhere to bring someone who wants to receive services,” he continued. “At this point, in the middle of the night there’s nowhere – the shelters are closed, and unless they have somewhere to go, they’re going back out to the street.”

Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills summed up the situation as a balance between protecting the community “while vigorously protecting the constitutional rights of the individual.” He asked the audience to think about how crime can be prevented, how to change policies, what legislative actions can be taken and “what community solutions are available that we all can do together.”

County Public Defender Kevin Robinson acknowledged the dilemma of arresting someone in a rural area and then releasing them at odd hours in a city far from where they live. But he added that those who are released need to be treated equally and people should have realistic expectations about the role of the criminal justice system.

“They jail, the police, our correctional staff -- they should not be our long-term community solution to mental health needs in our community,” Robinson said.

District Attorney Paul Gallegos highlighted the work of the county’s Community Corrections Partnership, which is compiling data on incarceration, releases and service outcomes. He said data analysis will identify problems and suggest solutions.

During an open discussion with audience members, Downey said that when people are released from jail, they’re not given any cash they may have come in with – they’re given a county check. It’s a practice that Downey said he intends to change, possibly using a debit card-type reimbursement instead.

Responding to a question on how long people can be legally held, Gallegos said that even if the county could prolong jail stays, public safety realignment would make it difficult. The county jail is now filled with people who once would have been sentenced to prison, which limits incarceration capacity.

Mental health assessments also have their limitations. Downey said that “on occasion,” pre-release assessments have led to subjects being taken to Semper Virens, the county’s mental health facility.

But it’s up to the facility’s staff to decide whether to hold someone and Phil Crandall, the county’s human services director, said that “we are a psychiatric facility and we are not licensed to admit patients with drug and alcohol as a primary diagnosis or with medical conditions.”

There was reluctance to talk about the specific incident that motivated the forum but during an open comment session, a Eureka woman commented on it head-on.

“You had a problem with someone in Redway and you picked him up and brought that problem to Eureka, with horrendous consequences – that is not acceptable,” she said.

Others questioned claims that those released from jail at night are asked about their ability to get home, saying people they know and they themselves have been released without money or a way to return home.

Supervisor Estelle Fennell noted the high level of community concern and encouraged people to consider what it will take to change the situation at the policymaking level.

The forum ended with a moment of silence for Freed and other violent crime victims.

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