Sheriff Answering Judges Complaints About Mistaken Jail Releases

Washoe County Sheriff's Office
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Washoe County judges want to know how at least seven inmates, some with a history of violence, were erroneously released from the county jail despite court orders to keep them in custody.

Washoe County Assistant Sheriff Don Means said the mistaken releases were caused by a change in the computer system, a problem that is being addressed. He said both jail personnel and court clerks were to blame.

"It's not an epidemic by any means," Means told the Reno Gazette-Journal, adding that the Washoe County Jail counted seven incorrect releases within the last year - not within the last few months as the judges contend.

Three of the released inmates remain free, he said.

District Judge Janet Berry said the jump in cases is significant and recent within the last 60 days.

"I've been on the bench for nine years, and I have never seen anything like this, to see multiple felony inmates released," she said.

"We all make mistakes, but the numbers I'm seeing are not an acceptable level," she said.

In response, Chief District Judge James W. Hardesty has called a meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, with Means and Sheriff Dennis Balaam to resolve the problem.

"It's something I'm concerned about and other judges are concerned about," Hardesty told the newspaper.

Means said several things led to the mistaken releases. For one, the jail and court changed the way information on cases is entered.

Before last year, bailiffs would write out the sentencing information on paper. Today, it is entered into the computer by the court clerk.

At times, the jail clerk has failed to scroll through all the screens on the computer to see the full sentencing provisions, he said. At other times, the provisions requiring that the person be held until transported for treatment didn't appear on the inmates computerized record until days later.

By that time, the person was out, he said.

"We've had a couple of meetings to standardize this," Means said. "We take holding people pretty serious over here."

Hardesty said he hoped to work with the jail to develop a better process.

"We're not ascribing blame," he said. "They continue to suffer under very difficult overcrowding conditions."

Berry became incensed last Thursday when she learned that yet another inmate she had ordered held for treatment was not in jail and did not appear for a court hearing.

When the prosecutor asked Berry to issue a bench warrant for the woman, Berry said "No," and said she was ready to issue a warrant "for the deputy who released her."

"This keeps going on every week," Berry said. "I have inmates who tell the jail, I'm not supposed to be released, and we have a sheriff's office that releases them over a court order."

In an interview after the hearing, Berry told the newspaper that many of these inmates are people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness and a drug addiction and later are picked up on drug-related charges.

Judges often order them held at the jail until they can be transferred to a drug rehabilitation center.

"Often we can save taxpayers money if we can get them into treatment programs."

But in some cases, the inmates have a violent history. For example, Berry said, she sentenced William Flanders Royal, 28, to probation on a use-of-a-controlled-substance charge, but included a provision that he be sent to a program.

"He had a history of violent crimes, " she said. "I did not want him let out on the streets of Reno."

But the jail mistakenly released him, she said, "even though Mr. Royal was protesting, I don't want to leave."

Means confirmed that Royal had been released by mistake, but said the fault was with the court clerk, not the jail. He said the court hold on Royal didn't appear on the computer file until two days later, something Berry disputes.

Berry said expecting a judge to issue a bench warrant for someone who takes up the "get-out-of-jail-free" offer from jail officials is unreasonable and tarnishes the inmates record.

"It's a powerful tool to order a warrant," Berry said. "That's a power that should never be abused."

And releasing many of these people by mistake is a threat to the public, she said.

"They will immediately re-offend," she said. "There will be another felony. There will be another victim who might be harmed in some way because we didn't do our job."

There is also a cost factor. Berry said it costs about $300 to $500 to process each case and book inmates back into jail.