As community members continue to express concern over late-night jail releases, Eureka officials attended a League of California Cities meeting to offer their support for a bill that would provide counties with an alternative, the city announced last week.
Eureka police chief Andrew Mills, councilwoman Melinda Ciarabellini and city attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson traveled to Ontario, Calif., to advocate for Senate Bill 833, which would allow sheriff’s offices to offer a voluntary program to inmates to stay in jail up to 16 hours on the day of their release or until daytime business hours, according to a city press release.
The league’s Public Safety Policy Committee voted unanimously on Friday to support the bill if amended to include additional liability language recommended by the California State Sheriff’s Association.
"We’ve got to do something," mayor Frank Jager said. "We’ve seen what happens when we don’t. It’s not good for the community or the people being released."
The issue rose to the forefront of people’s minds after the New Year’s Day murder of Rev. Eric Freed at the St. Bernard Catholic Church rectory. Freed’s alleged killer, 44-year-old Gary Lee Bullock of Redway, had been arrested the day before on suspicion of public intoxication in Garberville and was released from jail around 1 a.m. on Jan. 1.
Other incidents have led to the deaths of released inmates, such as the fatal stabbing of 33-year-old Joshua Lloyd Burrell in September 2013. Burrell was killed in the Royal Inn parking lot in Eureka shortly after being released from jail after midnight.
These concerns manifested into a public forum at the Wharfinger Building in Eureka in February where local law enforcement and justice officials took public input on how to solve the issues. The resounding message from the public was that a policy should be adopted to forbid the release of inmates until daytime, but several law officials said this could lead to civil rights violations.
While officials said they support the bill, they added it doesn’t go far enough because it’s a voluntary program.
"I don’t think people under the influence of alcohol or drugs will be inclined to stay longer than they have to," Ciarabellini said. "But it’s a start in the right direction, and I’m hoping it will lead to more stringent legislation down the road."
County sheriff Mike Downey agreed.
"It doesn’t give us enough teeth so that we can hold on to them," Downey said.
He added that the county jail already allows inmates to stay in the county waiting room until daylight if they desire to, but said people cannot be compelled to stay.
"There are a few who do stay, but the majority will leave once they have reached that golden moment of release," Downey said.
Another concern Downey had with the bill is that keeping inmates in the jail during those extra hours could open the county up to potential lawsuits.
"If they can stay in the jail if they so choose, but they’re no longer deemed to be in custody, what happens if they’re hurt in the facility?" Downey said.
The ideal bill, he added, would "have to be something that would allow us to legally hold on to someone."
Daylight hours provide a higher level of "natural surveillance," Mills said in the release.
"People make rational choices to commit or avoid crime based on personal risk," he said. "Criminals are more inclined to think twice about committing a crime when there are more people who can prevent, report or suppress the criminal act."
Ciarabellini said she will now bring the issue before the rest of the council for discussion and hopefully write a letter to North Coast assemblyman Wesley Chesbro on behalf of the city asking for his support.
"Hopefully we can figure out a way to make an impact," she said.
Lorna Rodriguez can be reached at 441-0506 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LornaARodriguez. Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.com/Will_S_Houston.