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SF to let inmates set for release overnight remain in jail until the morning

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Sheriff Vicki Hennessy announced a new policy that would allow inmates to waive their release until normal business hours. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

As California jails face pressure to stop releasing inmates in the middle of the night, Sheriff Vicki Hennessy has decided to let inmates in San Francisco choose whether to stay behind bars until the morning.

By the end of the month, County Jail inmates will be able to waive their right to release for up to 16 hours or until normal business hours under a new policy from the sheriff.

The policy is the latest effort to ensure inmate safety from the sheriff, who in February created a new office to help homeless inmates released during the day find shelters. Since last August, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department has given out about 75 taxi vouchers a month to inmates released overnight.

“We’re always looking to make sure people are safe when they get out of our custody,” Hennessy told the San Francisco Examiner.

The policy change comes amid concern over the death of Jessica St. Louis, a woman who died of an apparent drug overdose after the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department released her from Santa Rita Jail overnight in July.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, has since introduced legislation to end late-night jail releases in California. Like the local policy, the legislation would require jails to offer inmates the opportunity to stay inside for up to 16 hours.

In San Francisco, attorneys with the Public Defender’s Office have criticized the sheriff for releasing inmates into the dangers of the night. Brian Pearlman, managing attorney for the misdemeanor unit, said the practice results in inmates reoffending.

Pearlman said that homeless inmates released overnight do not have access to the same services available during the day. Shelter beds, for instance, have likely been full for hours by the time an inmate is released at night.

“People are getting let out and they have nowhere to go,” Pearlman said.

Pearlman urged the sheriff to release inmates sooner rather than later. He called the policy change “unconscionable.”

“Do your job and release the person within a reasonable time and at a reasonable time of day in the first place,” Pearlman said. “The whole process should take less than an hour.”

Hennessy said the process takes so long because arraignment court, when most defendants are ordered release, is not held until the afternoon. She also pointed to the fact that the court system is not automated and still uses paper records.

“We are getting people out much faster than we used to,” Hennessy said.

Hennessy herself expressed doubt that many inmates would take advantage of the waivers.

In her four decades of experience, Hennessy said she has never known an inmate who wanted to stay in jail longer than required.

“I don’t know that it really is going to be addressing a problem,” Hennessy said. “People want to get out the minute they can.”

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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