The Humboldt County jail in Eureka is now proactively offering bus tickets to eligible inmates who had been arrested outside the Greater Eureka area as part of a new policy announced Monday. – The Times-Standard file

The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office announced earlier this week that it is now proactively offering bus tickets to released jail inmates that will allow them to travel back to outlying areas where they were first arrested.

The rides will be offered to jail inmates who were arrested outside the greater Eureka area — not including Cutten, Myrtletown and Humboldt Hill — and who have less than $5 or don’t have means to purchase a bus ticket, according to the sheriff’s office. If they meet these criteria, the inmates will be offered a bus ticket, which will be paid for using funding from the Inmate Welfare Fund, according to the sheriff’s office.

Sheriff William Honsal said the policy change was made after discussions with Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson.

“Chief Watson voiced his concerns about jurisdictions making arrests of indigent individuals and then those individuals being let out on the streets of Eureka without means of returning to the city they were arrested in,” Honsal wrote in an email to the Times-Standard on Monday afternoon.

Watson said he is pleased with Honsal’s “swift” response to the city’s concerns. He said because Eureka is the county seat and is a center for everything from government offices to mental health services, there is a perception that Eureka has been “an inadvertent ‘dumping ground’ for other outlying communities’ problems.

“The release directly onto our streets of indigent individuals who were jailed following arrests in other local jurisdictions has certainly contributed to Eureka inheriting, at least temporarily, new and often recurrent, sources of crime and disorder,” Watson wrote in an email to the Times-Standard. “So, we felt starting a discussion about strategies to help reduce this issue was an important incremental step in the right direction (such finding a proactive way to voluntarily return individuals otherwise without the means to their place of origin).”

The sheriff’s office’s inmate release policy has come under criticism in recent years, especially in relation to two murder cases. Redway resident Gary Lee Bullock was released from the jail around midnight on New Year’s Day after being arrested in Southern Humboldt County for public intoxication the previous day. After being released, Bullock walked a few blocks to the St. Bernard Catholic Church and murdered the Rev. Eric Freed later that morning in the church rectory. Bullock was convicted of Freed’s murder in 2016.

Another incident was the September 2013 fatal stabbing of 33-year-old Joshua Lloyd Burrell, who was killed in the Royal Inn parking lot in Eureka shortly after he was released from jail after midnight.

In February 2010, a 50-year-old man who was released from the jail during the early morning hours was hit by a truck and killed while attempting to walk back to Arcata on U.S. Highway 101.

Under Sheriff Mike Downey, the sheriff’s office decided to modify the jail release policy in March 2014 after community outcry by conducting exit interviews with inmates. The policy said in cases where inmates showed signs of being a danger to others, themselves or being gravely disabled, the inmate could be placed under a mental health hold. Inmates released between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. were offered a chance to contact a friend or relative by phone and offered to call a cab for the inmate, according to the policy. The inmate also had the option to voluntarily stay in the jail until daylight.

The Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury found in a 2014 report that the jail appeared to violate state penal code by not providing transportation to some individuals released from custody.

The grand jury said the jail routinely violated California Penal Code 686.5, which mandates that indigent persons who won’t be charged and who were arrested more than 25 miles away from the point of their release be returned to or provided with the means to return to the place of their arrest.

The sheriff’s office stated in its news release Wednesday the sheriff’s office had previously adopted a policy of providing bus tickets upon request to people arrested 25 miles or more away from the jail.

“In 2015, we implemented a released inmate transportation policy to be in compliance to state law 686.5,” Honsal wrote to the Times-Standard. “Since that time, we have offered all persons who are indigent and arrested 25 air miles away from the jail the opportunity to be returned to the location of arrest by the arresting agency or by receipt of a bus ticket. The law does not mandate that any person be forcibly returned to that location. This law is in place for those who request this assistance.”

The change announced today now mandates jail officials offer the bus ticket to eligible inmates. The policy also reduces the radius threshold from the previous 25 miles, according to the sheriff’s office.

The bus tickets will be offered regardless of the time of the inmate’s release, allowing the inmate to travel once buses begin operating in the morning.

So far, 60 bus tickets have been given to inmates, according to the sheriff’s office.

“We purchase tickets from Humboldt Transit Authority, KT Net (Willow Creek to Hoopa) and Redwood Coast Transit,” Honsal wrote.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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