Undersheriff Billy Honsal (standing) responds to public questions and accusations during a February town hall meeting about jail releases.
The Humboldt County Grand jury is calling for Sheriff Mike Downey to enact changes to the county jail’s release policies, including a recommendation to end late-night and early-morning releases.
“The people of Humboldt County would be better served if Humboldt County Correctional Facility stopped releasing inmates between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.,” reads a report released by the jury today.
The Grand jury also suggest that the county jail may be violating state law by not providing inmates arrested at distant locations a way to get home, and recommend that cash confiscated during bookings be returned upon an inmate’s release.
The practice of releasing people from the jail in the late night and early morning hours came under scrutiny after the killing of Father Eric Freed on Jan. 1, allegedly at the hands of a man who had been arrested in Redway on the afternoon of Dec. 31 and released in downtown Eureka — blocks from where Freed slept — after midnight. The grand jury report cites three deaths that have occurred in the last year “involving early morning releases from the jail.”
Downey, citing constitutional concerns (which he reiterated to the grand jury), explained that the jail holds people arrested on suspicion of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol until they are determined to be sober and not a danger to themselves or others. If sobriety comes at 3 a.m., that’s when the jail lets them out. The jail also sometimes releases inmates during late-night/early morning hours when they’ve completed a sentence.
In May, following a town hall meeting that was heated at times, the sheriff's office announced a change in policy: they would offer inmates the option to stay in jail 'til morning, if the inmate requested it. (Three to five inmates per week asked for such a thing, according to a sheriff's office press release at the time.)
But in its report released today, the grand jury determined that Downey’s constitutional concerns weren’t likely to have actual legal impacts (the Journal noted in the January story “Dead of Night” that at least six other jails around the state hold people until daylight hours, without legal challenge). The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that jails can legally hold people for 48 hours before they must be brought before a judge. Releasing them prior to that period is discretionary, the grand jury determined.
“In a situation where the safety of the community is at issue, the Jury believes that it is extremely unlikely that any court will hold that the Sheriff is violating the law by deciding that the exercise of such discretion should not occur between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. when the exercise of that discretion can put the community at risk," the report states. "The sheriff should order that no decision as to whether or not ‘no further proceedings are desirable’ will be made between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.”
In addition, the grand jury found that the Humboldt County jail may be violating California law by not providing transport for people arrested in the far reaches of the county.
“California Penal Code Section 686.5 mandates that for an indigent person who is arrested ‘more than 25 airline miles’ from where he or she is released from custody and who will not be charged, ‘the arresting agency shall, at his request, return or provide for return of such person to the place of his arrest.’ Humboldt County Correctional Facility staff told us they do not routinely follow this policy,” the report reads.
The report suggest that the sheriff’s office work with the Humboldt Transit Authority to provide bus tickets for released inmates. “We think that Humboldt Transit Authority would prove amenable to this procedure. Generally speaking the early morning buses are not crowded and making bus tickets available would be virtually cost free as the buses will run in any case.”
If the place of arrest was not accessible by public transit, the report goes on, the jail must make other arrangements.
Finally, the grand jury recommended that inmates be given back any cash that they were booked with upon release. Currently, the jail issues a check for confiscated cash upon release (unless the inmate was booked for a brief intoxication hold) — a practice the grand jury called “problematic.”