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Thousands of non-violent inmates have been released from jails in Los Angeles County to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but the county sheriff said Monday he's now concerned about a potential future spike in crime.
Since the middle of March, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has been reducing the inmate population and cutting down on the number of people booked to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in the department's facilities.
“We were faced with a choice, if we left the jail system fully populated and overpopulated then the pandemic is a lot easier to sweep through the jail system and jeopardize everyone’s safety,” he said in an interview with FOX11.
According to Villanueva, the department released 25 percent of the county inmate population as the pandemic worsened, a total of 4,276 non-violent inmates since Feb. 28. Those who were released were non-violent criminals in pre-trial detention or those who were finishing their sentences within 30 to 60 days.
A Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department prisoner transportation bus leaves the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles on Wednesday, April 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
As the virus spread throughout the country, major cities such as New York and Chicago reported drops in crime. In Los Angeles, 2020 key crime statistics were consistent with last year’s figures until the week of March 15, then dropped by 30 percent.
But law enforcement officials are worried about a surge of unreported domestic violence, and what will happen when restrictions lift or continue. Villanueva told FOX11 he was most concerned about thousands of former inmates now on the streets of Los Angeles.
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“What’s going to happen is some of them are not going to go back to court, they’re gonna go to warrants to speak, for failure to appear,” he said Monday. “People who are not in jail are losing their jobs, much less those that didn’t have a job, to begin with, and are out on the streets, we’re now adding to the mix, it’s uncharted territory that we’re headed into.”
In recent weeks, the sheriff said personnel in the field has almost doubled. People are told to abide by stay-at-home orders, making residential burglaries difficult if there is "a house full of people waiting for them"
“We just have to be hyper-vigilant because that pendulum can eventually swing in the opposite direction,” he said Monday.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Monday he's concerned about a future spike in crime after thousands of non-violent inmates were released to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The sheriff's department also is conducting extra patrols at closed businesses because they are now an "easy target."
Villanueva said that the release policy resulted in 11 inmates testing positive for the virus out of an inmate population that began at 17,000. California suspended prison visits statewide as the virus spread.
The 75 percent of the jail population that remains behind bars includes 1,200 murder suspects and the most violent offenders, according to Villanueva.
“There’s a point we can’t go past without putting in danger the community’s safety so we had to balance the needs of the jail versus the community’s safety," he told FOX11.
In other cities, law enforcement officials have said that other crimes may have been fueled by shutdown orders.
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Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the city's aggravated assaults were up 10 percent in the last three weeks, and half of those were domestic violence, a significantly higher proportion than normal.
In the northern part of California, San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia told the Associated Press he hopes the downward trend will continue after the pandemic is over, but his officers are preparing for the worst.
“The longer we’re in a lockdown,” he said, “the more we’re playing with fire.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.