By David M. Greenwald
The crisis from the COVID-19 pandemic did not cause the overcrowded and dangerously unhealthy conditions in jails like Los Angeles County, but researchers at UCLA Law School found that, while the conditions have been bad for some time, “the COVID-19 pandemic has made the dangers of incarceration far worse.”
Their report finds, “COVID-19 has already become a death sentence for many incarcerated around the country, and with the recent surge, the rate of illness and death will unfortunately only increase unless appropriate and swift action is taken.”
Los Angeles County overall has been hit hard, and the jails reflect the overall conditions. As of December, North County jail in Los Angeles County had the third largest outbreak of any jail in the U.S., reaching more than 1,500 cases.
The researchers note that the top 10 clusters of COVID in the country are in jails and prisons. In LA County, “the impact of COVID-19 will fall most heavily on communities of color and people held in the jail pretrial who are unable to afford their bail amount. People of color face disproportionate rates of incarceration in the County, and racial disparities in the jail have been exacerbated during the pandemic.”
The problem, they find, has been hastened by judicial and local actors, who have engaged in policymaking and practices that have contributed to the prolonged detention for people who are incarcerated pretrial.
“Hundreds, if not thousands of people, considered legally innocent, find their access to the courts and counsel, two of the most important rights in our criminal legal system, cut off,” they write. “People are missing court hearings and experiencing lengthy trial delays, all while being exposed for increasingly longer periods of time in the jails, considered some of the deadliest congregate living settings in the country.”
The report was authored by clinical students at UCLA Law School and highlights the actions of the courts and LA County Sheriff and the impact that that has had on people incarcerated pretrial.
They write, “It uncovers the fact that during a time when the County should be working to decarcerate the jails and shorten the length of stay, that instead the County continues to funnel people into jails and keep them there for longer periods of time than pre-pandemic.”
The problems are nothing new—however, COVID has “heightened risk of serious illness or death.” Prior to the spread of COVID, “jails throughout the U.S. were already dangerous and deadly places. Between 2008 and 2019, 7,571 people died in more than 500 US jails, which amounted to 35% more deaths than the previous decade. Over two-thirds of those that died in jail, were individuals being held pretrial – those who were never convicted of any crime.”
Despite recommendations from public health officials and reformers, “[j]ails that were over capacity prior to the pandemic remain over capacity. The Los Angeles County jail system had a pre-pandemic population greater than 17,000 people, severely exceeding its rated capacity of 12,404 people. Although the County was able to safely and commendably reduce the total jail population to 11,756 people in May4, the jail population has spiked again to just under 15,000.”
The report finds that in LA County, officials “have failed to bring delayed trials to court in a meaningful way or to maintain a reduced jail population in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Despite the resumption of criminal trials for a brief period of time in September, the County continues to unduly extend periods of incarceration for people who are presumed innocent, likely contributing to the increasing jail population.
“Delaying trials as a result of our current public health crisis may seem like the right thing to do since jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and court employees risk transmission by appearing in court, and risk bringing the virus home to their families,” they write. “But it is much easier to implement public health guidelines and maintain physical distance in a courtroom than in an overcrowded jail, and this is certainly true nine months into the pandemic, now that there are clear guidelines on how to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 indoors.”
That problem is exacerbated by the fact that not only have trials been delayed, “but LASD repeatedly fails to take the appropriate measures to prevent people in jail from being exposed to COVID-19.”
The report finds, “This has resulted in repeated quarantines, which in turn have prevented people from accessing counsel and attending their hearings, causing even further delays to the resolution of their cases. Instead of continuing to release people from jail to await their delayed trials in safer conditions, state and county actors are implementing policies and engaging in practices that cause people in jails to be exposed to COVID-19 for longer periods of time.
“This is unacceptable from actors who are duty bound to care for people in their custody,” they write.
The report brings to light policies and practices that have prolonged incarceration during a deadly pandemic.
It also makes recommendations on helping to alleviate some of the problems. The report makes three recommendations:
- Reduce the jail population using appropriate release procedures and decreasing new bookings;
- Mitigate the spread of the virus in jails and prevent the overuse of quarantine practices; and
- Safely resume jury trials for those who remain in custody
—David M. Greenwald reporting
Full report is available here: https://law.ucla.edu/sites/default/files/PDFs/Criminal_Justice_Program/Counting-the-Days-2020.pdf
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