Public Defender seeks immediate release for people in jail at heightened risk of coronavirus

San Francisco Hall of Justice

by Valerie Ibarra

“Given the volume of incarcerated people in America, the conditions under which they are detained, and the current spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, there is every reason to question whether American detention facilities, as a whole, are up to this challenge.” – National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers President Nina J. Ginsberg

The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office began filing motions on Tuesday, March 10, to seek the immediate release of all clients being held pre-trial in San Francisco county jails who are at heightened risk for illness from coronavirus.

People at heightened risk for the virus include people over 60, those with heart or lung disease or diabetes, and immunosuppressed individuals who are suffering from cancer, HIV or autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or multiple sclerosis.

“We are taking this action to protect older adults and those with compromised immune systems who are extremely vulnerable right now. People who are incarcerated in jail are already exposed to an unsafe environment. The cramped and unsanitary conditions in jail put the older or immunocompromised population at a much greater risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus,” said Public Defender Mano Raju.

Raju added, “We are committed to working with the district attorney, the sheriff, and the courts to identify safe alternatives to pre-trial detention for these individuals.”

Meanwhile, according to The Appeal: “San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin directed his prosecutors not to oppose motions to release pretrial detainees facing misdemeanor charges or drug-related felony charges if the person is deemed to pose no threat to public safety. Boudin also directed his staff to ‘strongly consider’ credit for time served in plea deals so that more people can be released.”

In a letter sent today, the public defender also asked the sheriff to assess all sentenced persons in jail to see who is eligible for immediate release on electronic monitoring or work release programs and to then begin processing their release.

“Given the public health emergency posed by coronavirus, my office is seeking the immediate release of all incarcerated people sentenced to county jail in San Francisco who have less than six months left to serve,” said Raju. “These are cases where the court has already decided that it’s safe to release someone into the community, and will be doing so in the very near future. This will help reduce the population on the inside, allowing for recommended distance between individuals during this public health crisis.”

“Our office pursues all avenues to ensure the safety and wellness of our clients every day. We are asking that the sheriff, and others with the power to release people, act with similar urgency in the face of this increasingly serious public health crisis,” said Raju.

Valerie Ibarra, public information officer for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, can be reached at Valerie.Ibarra@sfgov.org.