If you're let out of jail in the middle of the night 50 miles from home, who do you call? For some, it's Hoopa resident Brad Marshall's elderly mom.
That's something Marshall would like to see change. Before a crowd of 100 people last week, he asked the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office to reassess its policy of releasing inmates and detainees in the middle of the night, describing some late-night trips his mother, who is in her mid-70s, has made to pick up extended family stranded far from home in Eureka. "She does her best to come out here," Marshall said. "(State Route) 299 is a dangerous road. So please review the policy."
And it appears jail officials are doing just that, following Marshall's story and a similar outcry from the community. The review comes after an at-times intense public meeting last week that saw the county's top law enforcement officials explaining the laws and jail policy affecting inmate releases and addressing concerns and suggestions from the crowd.
Sheriff Mike Downey was somewhat terse during the meeting, reiterating the position he previously gave the Journal about the legality and practicality of holding inmates until daylight hours (see "Dead of Night," Jan. 30). He told the crowd that he wouldn't have a constitutional problem with legislation allowing jails to hold people until daylight, but said a previous attempt at changing state law failed. Still, jail Capt. Ed Wilkinson said the sheriff's office is amenable to changes if they comply with state law.
"We are constantly reviewing our policies and looking at ways to do things better," Wilkinson said. "A lot of good points came from the meeting."
Wilkinson reached out to other jails around the state earlier this year, seeking to learn more about how they release inmates. Of the 20 or so that responded, most had policies similar to Humboldt County's — detaining intoxicated people three to eight hours and releasing them when they're sober enough, day or night. But six of the counties that responded — Colusa, Ventura, Imperial, Inyo, San Benito and San Mateo — told Wilkinson that they do, in fact, hold inmates until the daylight hours. Four of those counties said they made their decisions because of remote jails and lack of transportation during the late night and early morning.
The Imperial County jail is in the El Centro city limits, and only a short walk from some of the city's residential areas — but the Imperial County Sheriff's Office is one of the few California counties that holds onto detainees until dawn, no matter what time they were brought in the previous day.
"We normally start letting people out pretty much when the sun's coming out," Imperial County Correctional Lt. David Tirado told the Journal. The jail provides a bus pass to an outgoing inmate, but buses don't run in the late night hours. The jail will release an inmate who posts bail, Tirado said, but not without trying to secure them a ride. "Other releases — they can wait for the morning hours when it's safer." The jail even tries to accommodate drunk-in-public detainees longer when the weather's bad, Tirado said. The county has never been challenged or sued over its policy, to Tirado's knowledge.
Last week's public invectives were mostly directed toward the Humboldt County jail's late-night releases, particularly since the lack of public transportation at that hour can leave out-of-towners stuck on Eureka's streets. A crowd clearly still smarting from the Jan. 1 killing of St. Bernard Pastor Eric Freed suggested that the sheriff's office implement pre-release mental health screenings, offer bus passes or taxi rides to outgoing detainees, or even drive people back to the origin of their arrest. Invoking Freed's killing, one impassioned speaker demanded, "What we want is answers. Sheriffs brought that problem to Eureka. This problem didn't originate in Eureka."
Put simply, the sheriff's office explained, those things cost money that the county doesn't have. Holding cells in the county's remote regions have been closed due to a lack of funding, meaning anyone arrested or detained is brought to Eureka's jail.
Public Defender Kevin Robinson — the county's lead in defending those too poor to hire private defense attorneys in criminal cases — said any policy that the jail adopts should be as fair to everyone as possible. "I want to make sure everyone is treated the same," he said, adding that while police and correctional officers should be adept at recognizing and handling people with mental illness, police and courts should not be the social structure to address mental health issues. "They should not be our long-term solution to mental health needs in our community," he said. "They should be our first response."
Wilkinson said the sheriff is considering adopting a policy similar to Imperial's. "The meeting yesterday showed that the community is for something like this," Wilkinson said. "It needs to be weighed out — we need to look at a lot of different things. We have to talk to our counsel to make sure it's appropriate and within the law. That's a big factor for us."
The Humboldt County jail does not give out bus passes. When an inmate is released, any cash they had on booking is returned to them in the form of a check. Downey said the check policy is for accountability — fewer sheriff's office employees handling cash means less opportunity for corruption. Wilkinson said the jail will soon issue swipeable cash cards upon release.
Wilkinson said there's not any kind of per-capita funding for inmates, addressing rumors that the jail releases people after midnight to get funding for the whole next day, while only housing them for a fraction of that day.