October 22, 2014
By Will Houston
The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a set of responses to the Humboldt County Grand Jury's recent report, including initiating talks with a local transit agency to address the issue of late night and early morning jail releases.
Late night jail releases was one of seven topics investigated by the grand jury in its 2013-2014 annual report that the county is required to respond to by law.
The subject of jail releases shot to the forefront of community concern this year after the brutal murder of St. Bernard Catholic Church priest Rev. Eric Freed in the rectory on New Year's Day. The suspect, Gary Lee Bullock, had been released from the county jail a few blocks away shortly after midnight on Jan. 1. His trial is scheduled for early next year.
Local and state law enforcement and correctional officials later held a community meeting at the Wharfinger Building in Eureka to hear the community's input and to explain the current policies in place.
The grand jury is a volunteer civil institution consisting of nearly 20 county citizens that operates under the direction of the Humboldt County Superior Court for the role of monitoring the performance of local governments.
As a way to address the issue of late night releases, the jury recommended that the jail not allow inmates to be released between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., return any money confiscated at the time of booking back to the inmate at the time of release in the form of cash, and work to provide transportation using the Humboldt Transit Authority to qualified inmates who were arrested more than 25 miles away from the jail.
Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said the board has limited jurisdiction when it comes to jail operations.
"Having no authority over the sheriff, we can't force him to do anything with these recommendations," he said, adding that the most the board can do is change the sheriff's office budget.
Serving on the Humboldt Transit Authority Board of Directors, 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell said there has already been some talk about setting up an agreement with the county, but there were funding concerns and other issues.
"Regardless, HTA does not provide services for the hours that we are concerned about," she said. "That is an issue in and of itself."
As to the issue of funding the transit agreement, the board's approved response states that revenue from the proposed public safety sales tax — known as Measure Z — on the Nov. 4 ballot could be used, if identified as a priority.
Sheriff Mike Downey was not able to attend the meeting due to other matters, 1st District Supervisor and board Chairman Rex Bohn said, but the comments Downey submitted were approved by the board on Tuesday.
In his response, Downey said the recommendation to stop releases between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. was "not warranted or reasonable," but said the jail has made other changes.
"An additional policy, that was recently implemented, requires that each detainee be screened and objective signs of sobriety documented prior to release," he wrote. "The form also contains a disclaimer and box to check in regards to the offer of staying in the correctional facility until 6 a.m. The detainee can opt to stay or be released from custody and must acknowledge his/her decision by signing the document, prior to release."
One member of the public commented on the topic, saying the county should take responsibility for the jail "if the sheriff is unwilling to do something with these people."
Bohn said a large percentage of the 14,000 people released from the jail each year are low-level offenders such as those arrested for being drunk in public.
"Part of his problem is do we let them all out," he said. "I think he's working on that. It's a pretty touchy situation, and I think he's doing a pretty good job with the jail."
Downey also addressed disorderly conduct arrests in his response.
"Humboldt County Sheriff's Office correctional facility policy allows for an individual to be held, under the aforementioned conditions, for up to four hours or until they exhibit their ability to be released, being able to care for themselves," he wrote. "Upon complying with policy and lawful requirements, the sheriff no longer has legal means or authority to detain or keep in custody those booked under these conditions."