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As many jail cells sit empty, concerns raised over release of some inmates

Critics say release of some amid pandemic poses public safety threat

SHARE As many jail cells sit empty, concerns raised over release of some inmates

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SALT LAKE CITY — As authorities grew certain the new coronavirus would make its way into Utah jails, judges granted the release of scores of Utahns who were being held behind bars. 

In Salt Lake County, conditional freedom has been given to more than 150 accused of low-level offenses, like drug possession or small probation violations. Yet others accused of more serious crimes are also successfully arguing for release ahead of trial, raising public safety concerns for some.

When Rebecca Breiman heard last month that a man who previously lived in her Salt Lake neighborhood was no longer locked up, she fumed. 

Her one-time neighbor, Angelo Nico Herrera, 30, faces a charge of criminal solicitation, a first-degree felony, after the FBI said he made an arrangement to pay for sex with an 11-year-old girl in May 2019. Herrera believed he was making a deal with the girl’s father, who was actually a federal agent, court documents say. 

“We’re trying to keep our community safe from coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the fact that children still have to stay safe,” said Breiman, who has a young daughter. 

Breiman doesn’t believe Herrera has returned to her neighborhood in the last two weeks, but that’s little comfort, she said. The criminal allegations he faces stem from conduct behind a computer screen, not any in-person interactions. 

“What I understand is that they’re releasing people with sort of low-level crimes that aren’t deemed an imminent risk to society,” she said, adding that she doesn’t believe Herrera fits that category.

In American Fork, a parolee released from a halfway house early over COVID-19 concerns is charged with picking a home at random on March 19, tying up a woman there at knifepoint and threatening to kill her.

Joshua Haskell faces charges including aggravated burglary, a first-degree felony, and was being held without bail in the Utah County Jail ahead of a scheduled court appearance on April 21.

Even before Salt Lake County officials announced the first case of coronavirus in a Utah jail, the outbreak has upended Utah’s criminal justice system, forcing delays in investigations and in trials as some court proceedings are being held online for the first time. In Herrera’s case, FBI agents working from home were cut off for a time from a system that held classified evidence in his case.

Herrera’s attorney, Brenda Viera, did not respond to messages seeking comment. Her client was ordered to stand trial in September and has not yet entered a plea.

While defense lawyers and prosecutors have worked to secure large batches of releases from jails, many attorneys, like Viera, are asking judges on a case-by-case basis. There’s no comprehensive list of all who are no longer in custody due to coronavirus concerns — a group that includes more than 80 Utah State Prison inmates who were within three months of their release dates and were allowed to leave early this week.

On March 19, 3rd District Judge Todd Shaughnessy granted Herrera’s request to leave jail and ordered him to wear an ankle monitor and not go online.

Viera had argued for her client’s release “due to the circumstances of the virus” and the likelihood it would soon infiltrate jails, according to a recording of the court hearing. She said her client has no criminal history, had completed a counseling program, needs to work to support his family and would live with his mom.

Prosecutor Andrew Deesing countered that the virus is the only difference from earlier hearings where the judge ordered Herrera to remain in custody.

“The virus may be a good reason to release somebody who’s a nonviolent offender who’s not a threat to our community,” Deesing said. But given the severity of the case, he continued, “I think releasing him into the community would be ill-advised from a public safety perspective.”

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said his staff have sought out good candidates for release from the jail, where 113 inmates were allowed to leave in March. And 40 more were set to be sent home this weekend after 3rd District Judge Mark Kouris signed orders granting their release.

The jail population has shrunk to less than a third of its normal size, at 1,576 as of Saturday.

Gill said he draws a line at those charged in more serious cases like domestic violence and sex crimes, offenders he believes pose too great a risk for release ahead of trial.

“We genuinely believe, regardless of whether there is a pandemic or not, that there are certain individuals who are a public safety concern, and we’re not going to back off that,” he said.

Gill said his office will be reviewing data next week to determine how many defendants have been sent home, despite protest from his attorneys.

Richard Mauro, executive director of the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association, said many who are facing serious criminal charges but are no longer jailed do in fact show up for their court dates and stay out of trouble.

Others who remain behind bars simply can’t afford bail and then lose their jobs, Mauro said, even though they are presumed innocent ahead of any conviction.

“There are all kinds of detrimental impacts on people that remain in jail,” he said.

Mauro’s office is now setting its sights on securing the release of those older than 50 — an effort similar to one led by the ACLU of Utah.

The organization joined others this week in filing a petition with the Utah Supreme Court for the release of those who are older or have medical conditions, plus others who don’t threaten jeopardizing public safety.

But it’s up to a judge to decide whether a case meets that criteria, said Jason Groth, with the ACLU of Utah. And while many counties are already seeking to send certain defendants home, Groth said his group wants to make sure the entire state is doing so.