Tulare County judges start releasing some inmates early due to COVID-19 concerns

TULARE, Calif. (KFSN) -- In response to COVID-19, Tulare County Superior Court officials say defense attorneys have recently started to file motions requesting the release of their clients who are being held in the county jails.

As part of a new system, Tulare County judges started hearing those motions on a case-by-case basis on Wednesday, and the hearings continued on Thursday.

Not all requests are being granted.

Some of the inmates who have been released were serving their sentences in the jail and scheduled to be released soon.

"Those levels of sentencing were determined in a courtroom so that they would face those penalties and justice would be served," Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux said. "And so for me, I have a hard time having any type of inmate released for the sole purpose of an anticipated issue."

Boudreaux believes that the anticipated issue is one of fear that COVID-19 could enter his jails and cause an outbreak.

But he says his jails are safe, clean, and not overcrowded.

"So we do have a quarantine plan, we have a medical plan, we have a booking intake evaluation and process through our medical provider," Boudreaux said. "And I'm happy to say we have zero inmates who have symptoms or reported symptoms of COVID at this present time."

Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward says the public defender's office is also sending them dozens of pretrial cases to review for early release.

But his office has noticed that many of those inmates score poorly on pretrial risk assessments, like Steven Hembree, who has an extensive criminal history and is now facing charges for vandalizing a new Visalia restaurant.

Despite their objections, Hembree was released on Thursday, and ordered to come back to court in late May.

"While the rest of us are ordered to shelter in place, and sacrifice and do without, people are struggling financially, and it's only going to get worse-we are going to grant Hembree a get out of jail pass only to potentially victimize another Tulare County business," Ward said.

Ulises Garcia-Maldanado has also been released and ordered to come back to court for sentencing in August.

Prosecutors say the gang associate shot strangers with a BB gun last fall.

"How in any way does the COVID-19 issue diminish the fact that he has been determined to be not only a nuisance like Hembree, but a flat out the danger to our citizens, our neighbors, and our families?" Ward said.

As part of a statement, Tulare County Presiding Judge Brett Alldredge said that he does not believe the sheriff is running the jail in a deficient manner.

"In my experience, he's always done an excellent job in running his jail and I believe he's doing the very best he can to do that under these circumstances," Alldredge said.

The Tulare County District Attorney's Office estimates around 20 inmates have been released so far.

Court officials say judges will continue to review motions to release until further notice.

For more news coverage on the coronavirus and COVID-19 go to ABC30.com/coronavirus
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