Alisha Murdock knew that she would be responsible for picking up her mother from jail on her release date. But when her mom was discharged from the Placer County Jail in Auburn, California two months ahead of schedule, Murdock, who lives over 100 miles away in Richmond, couldn’t get to her right away.
Murdock, 21, says her mother was released after dark, late in the evening. “She didn’t have anywhere to go. She didn’t have any of her belongings,” she says. Buses in Auburn were no longer running at that time of night, and her mother wasn’t familiar with the area.
Murdock’s mother spent the rest of the night in the waiting area of the sheriff’s office. The next day she found a pastor at a local church who got her a hotel room for the following night until Alisha was able to arrive.
While Murdock’s mother had family to help her and was ultimately able to leave Placer County safely, other inmates who are released from jails late at night don’t always fare as well. It is a common practice for California’s county jails to release inmates late at night, often because state law dictates that inmates be let out by midnight on the day of their release (whether it be the last day of their sentence, or because charges have been dismissed, or for other reasons).
The paperwork and processing required for an inmate’s release is often delayed until late in the evening, resulting in inmates being discharged after buses have stopped running, and shelters and treatment centers have closed their doors for the night.
Danielle Evans, the director of women’s services at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) in San Francisco, often speaks to offenders prior to their release. She says that many are “concerned that, say, if they’re released on a weekend in the middle of the night and have nowhere to go, they could easily fall back into behaviors that got them into trouble in the first place.”
Evans says that late-night releases can be a great concern in rural counties where there’s less access to public transportation and social services around the clock.
This month, Senator Carol Liu (who represents the state’s 25th District in Southern California, which includes Glendale and Burbank) introduced a bill to deal with the issue of late-night releases, which is being sponsored by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The bill would allow inmates in county jails to voluntarily delay their discharge by up to 16 hours in order to avoid leaving the jail late at night, when they might not be able to make transportation arrangements or be admitted to treatment centers or other facilities outside normal business hours.
It would be optional for sheriffs to offer the voluntary custody program.
“We in California in particular need to rethink public safety. Ninety-five percent of the people we incarcerate are going to be released back into our communities,” says Liu, citing the importance of reentry services. She says the hours immediately following inmates’ release are a “very vulnerable time for people,” especially for those who don’t have support, such as family members to pick them up.
She mentions the case of Mitrice Richardson, a 24-year-old woman who was arrested in Malibu in 2009 after not being able to pay her bill at a restaurant. Richardson was released from the sheriff’s station around midnight without money or a cell phone, and her car had been impounded. Her remains were found in a canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains the following year; the cause of death could not be determined.
Liu calls it a “common sense bill” calling for a “small change in the law” that could make a difference, especially for women.
“If their housing situation is unstable, they’re released back to the street with literally nowhere to go,” says Evans. “They may come out thinking, ‘I want to change, I want to do something different with my life,’ but if they get out on a Sunday at midnight, where are they going to go for something like substance abuse treatment… They might go back to the situation they came from, or back to an unhealthy relationship.”
Harris County Jail in Texas stopped releasing inmates at night in 2012, citing safety concerns for those released.
While there hasn’t been a cost estimate yet for the voluntary custody program, Liu’s office predicts that the program could result in savings because warrants won’t have to be issued for people who don’t appear at court-ordered treatment programs.
Liu says that given that the cost of incarcerating a single inmate in California is between $46,000 and $50,000 a year, the money is “better spent reinvesting in people” by providing services that prevent them from returning to detention.
The California Department of Corrections reported in 2012 that the rate of recidivism (the number returning to prison within three years of release) for former inmates in the state was 65 percent.
Evans sees the issue as part of a broader need for pre-release planning. Evans is the program director of CJCJ’s Cameo House, which provides transitional housing for formerly incarcerated mothers and their children.
“On our end, we’re able to coordinate well with the Probation Department and the sheriff’s office. If we have a referral, we’re able to coordinate transport,” she says, so that individuals can transition safely from the prison or jail to the housing program.
She says that this sort of cooperation is key to the success of the reentry process. “The more proactive and collaborative that the Sheriff’s Department, the Probation Department, and community programs can be, the better – so that the needs of these women are being identified and services are being coordinated prior to their release,” she says. “[There are] ways we can improve the system and reentry and reduce the amount of time someone has to spend in lockup.”