The Impact COVID-19 is Having on California Inmates Serving Sentences in Federal Prisons, California State Prisons, and California Jails!

In California there are three different levels of jurisdiction that are responsible for housing criminal offenders after they have been convicted and sentenced, as follows: (1) if charged and convicted of a federal offense, a defendant will be under the custody and control of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) and housed in federal prison; (2) if convicted of violating a California state law and sentenced to state prison, a defendant will be under the custody and control of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) and will be housed in one of the California state prisons; (3) if convicted of violating a California state law and sentenced to state prison to be served “locally” pursuant to Penal Code section 1170(h) or ordered to serve the sentence in county jail, a defendant will be under the custody and control of the county sheriff’s department and will be housed in the local county jail.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented novel safety and health concerns for the staff and inmates located in each of the above-mentioned detention jurisdictions. Each jurisdiction is approaching their response to the pandemic independently and issuing varying protocols on how they are addressing social distancing guidelines and responding to the spread of the virus amongst inmates and staff. Each jurisdiction has implemented guidelines to screen and issue release orders for qualifying non-violent offenders.

In response to COVID-19, the BOP has implemented modified operations, suspended social visits, increased health screenings for inmates and staff, and prioritized “Home Confinement” for at-risk inmates who are serving federal sentences on non-violent offenses and pose a minimal likelihood of recidivism. The Attorney General has issued guidelines to the Director of Bureau Prisons granting discretion in releasing qualifying non-violent offenders to serve the remainder of their sentence on the Home Confinement Program.[1]

CDCR has also adopted measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 amongst inmates and prison staff. Under the Executive Order of Governor Newsom, the CDCR has temporarily halted the intake and/or transfer of inmates and youth into the state’s 35 prisons and 4 youth correctional facilities. Until the transfer halt is lifted, the inmates will remain in county custody.[2] The CDCR has also produced guidelines for accelerating and expediting the release of 3,500 inmates serving sentences on non-violent crimes that are due to be released within 60 days. CDCR will not expedite the release of an inmate serving a sentence for a violent crime, a person required to register under Penal Code section 290 (sex offenses), or domestic violence.[3]

Throughout California, county sheriff’s departments have the authority to confine and house offenders awaiting trial and offenders sentenced to county jail.[4] Each county sheriff’s department throughout California is developing and implementing different approaches to responding to the COVID-10 pandemic. For example, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has begun to release non-violent offenders in order to comply with the CDC’s social distancing guidelines.[5] Each county sheriff’s department has the authority to release offenders in the wake of COVID-19.

All three detention jurisdictions throughout California have began to release inmates to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it is clear that no jurisdiction at this time will be releasing violent offenders.


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[3] See,, for more information.

[4] Under Penal Code section 1170(h), certain defendants sentenced to California state prison are eligible to serve their prison sentence in a local county jail - when serving a “local prison sentence,” the inmate is also under the custody of the local county sheriff.

[5] See,, for more information.