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California, Other States Weigh Banning Late-Night Releases from Custody

Late-night releases from prisons and jails place former prisoners across the country at not only an immediate disadvantage—possibly unable to access transportation and shelter or a support system of friends and family— but also in the dangerous position of potentially committing new crimes that could land them back behind bars.

Some states have addressed the issue through legislation. Others are considering it. In January 2014, state Sen. Carol Liu introduced a bill into the California Assembly that could allow soon-to-be-released prisoners to voluntarily delay their discharge by up to 16 hours—with facility approval— in order to work out transportation issues or gain access to treatment centers or other facilities during regular business hours.

"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," Liu said of the bill, adding that the hours immediately following release are a "very vulnerable time for people."

Liu’s proposed legislation was at least partly inspired by the tragic death in 2009 of Mitrice Richardson, 24, who was arrested in Malibu after not paying her bill at a restaurant and was then released by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department around midnight without money or her cell phone and her car in impound.

Richardson's remains were found the following year in a remote Malibu Canyon ravine. The cause of death was never determined. In 2011, Richardson's parents reached a $900,000 wrongful death settlement with the county.

"If their housing situation is unstable, they're released back to the street with literally nowhere to go," said Danielle Evans, the director of women's services at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. "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."

The Harris County Jail in Houston, Texas, instituted its own ban on late-night releases in 2012, deciding it would no longer discharge prisoners after midnight after legislation prohibiting such releases stalled in the state senate.

"The thinking was, if we can design a system that's going to comply with what we think was going to be a smart bill and that's going to be introduced again, we might as well do it now," said Alan Bernstein, the Harris County Sheriff's Office director of public affairs.

In 2004, lawmakers in the District of Columbia banned prisoner releases between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., until a federal-court ruling, Barnes v. District of Columbia, declared the law unconstitutional. So in 2010, D.C. City councilman Phil Mendelson, along with his colleagues, amended the law to require D.C.'s Department of Corrections to ensure that released prisoners have shelter, clothing, a week's supply of medication and transportation before discharging them.

In 2011, Mendelson incentivized the law further by proposing a $1,000 fine each time a prisoner was released after 10 p.m.

"The idea was to make it a lot of work, so it would just be easier to release inmates before 10 o'clock," Mendelson said.

Similar efforts in Multnomah County, Oregon, could have helped save George Grigorieff from freezing to death just before Christmas in 2008.

Grigorieff, 63, was standing on a street corner in freezing temperatures on Dec. 18, 2008, when he was arrested by Portland police after they discovered he had three outstanding warrants for failing to appear in court on misdemeanor charges of drinking in public and interfering with public transportation.

After he was booked and placed in a jail cell, according to Multnomah County Sheriff's Office spokesman Paul McRedmond, Grigorieff's clothes were washed and dried, and he was given a medical evaluation.

Three hours later, at about 1:45 a.m., he was released. By law, according to McRedmond, the jail could not detain Grigorieff or even ask him to stay for his own welfare. The jail lobby was open and available as a "warming center," McRedmond said, but whether Grigorieff used it is unknown.

Three days after his release, Grigorieff was found dead at a cemetery in southeast Portland, wearing two hooded sweatshirts and two pairs of pants.

"Where does self-responsibility end off and state responsibility start, and vice versa?" McRedmond said in response to criticism of the sheriff's office in releasing Grigorieff to the freezing temperatures. "There's a gray area there. There’s always a crack."


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