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In Orange County, a debate over reduced jail sentences: ‘fear-mongering’ by the DA or too-lenient court officials?

Orange County’s district attorney has drawn a national spotlight in recent days for his critical take on local court officials for reductions in jail sentences amid the coronavirus pandemic, most notably objecting with outrage to the release of seven sex offenders who violated parole.

But while Todd Spitzer’s criticism of the court’s moves has garnered attention from local news channels and national outlets like the Fox and Friends news show, his counterparts at the Orange County Public Defender’s Office say the facts of the cases he cites have been overblown, and they accuse him of “fear-mongering.”

The debate in Orange County comes as law enforcement officials across the state wrestle with how to curb the spread of the coronavirus in prisons and local jails. Locally, some efforts – such as the early release of non-violent inmates near the end of their sentences – have been backed by police, while others – including a statewide “no bail” edict for low-level crimes by the California Judicial Council – have drawn opposition.

Last week, the Orange County district attorney’s office issued a statement warning residents that seven “high risk registered sex offenders” accused of cutting off or tampering with their GPS monitors had been released after spending days in local lockup rather than the six months the office argued they should have been required to spend behind bars.

In separate press releases, the DA’s office also criticized the same court commissioner, Joe Dane, for reducing bail for a man charged in connection to a fatal street race and for releasing on his own recognizance a third-striker later accused of getting into a confrontation with an Irvine officer.

None of those decisions were a result of the “no bail” edict, the DA’s office acknowledged. But Spitzer argued that they are examples of court officials “doing everything in their power” to reduce the jail population.

“There has been a ruse that has been pulled on the public in general, that we were only supposed to consider the non-violent, non-serious offenders (for early release),” Spitzer said. “This pandemic has been used as an excuse for a get-out-of-jail-free card for some of the most serious felons.”

Court spokesman Kostas Kalaitzidis said judicial officials, including Dane, are barred from commenting on the decisions, or Spitzer’s allegations, due to legal and ethical restrictions on judges or commissioners speaking about active criminal cases.

Public Defender Sharon Petrosino accused Spitzer of “fear-mongering” and distorting the facts to scare the public. She said most sex offenders charge their GPS devices at county facilities, which are now closed. And Petrosino added that offenders who violate parole actually serve 90 days, or less, in jail.

“This is so disingenuous of Todd, yet again,” Petrosino said. “These are not people who committed sex crimes now, most did not charge their GPS. Most are homeless or mentally ill.”

Petrosino noted that the actual sex charges committed by the individuals spotlighted by Spitzer occurred farther in their past, while the more recent crimes for which they were on parole included drug possession or making criminal threats.

“I think it’s really just fear mongering,” the public defender said. “Just tell people the truth.”

One of the sex offenders, Rudy William Grajeda Magdaleno, has already been re-arrested following his release, with Santa Ana police alleging he exposed himself to staff members at a parole resource center.

“You cannot evaluate just the most current crime,” Spitzer said of the offenders. “You have to look at their criminal history to see their propensity to be violent.”

Since Dane is an appointed commissioner rather than a sitting judge, the DA’s office is using its right to object to his overseeing parole violations involving sex offenders. Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes also weighed in on the controversy last week, saying it was a court order, not his decision, that led to the release of the seven parole violators, and noting that the jail currently has the capacity needed to “house sex offenders and other dangerous criminals.”

Source: Orange County Register

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