L.A. County Jails Are Locking People Up For Longer During the Pandemic

The percentage of people held pretrial for six months or longer is up six percent from January of last year, according to a UCLA School of Law report.

L.A. County Jails Are Locking People Up For Longer During the Pandemic

The percentage of people held pretrial for six months or longer is up six percent from January of last year, according to a UCLA School of Law report.

COVID-19 is ripping through jails and prisons in the U.S. Over 355,000 people held in jails and prisons have been infected with the disease, according to the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, of which I am a part. At least 2,000 incarcerated people have died. 

Now Los Angeles County has become the epicenter of the coronavirus, and its jail population is suffering. As of Thursday, the sheriff’s department has reported 4,136 cases of COVID-19 among incarcerated people and 12 deaths of incarcerated people from the disease. 

Despite the high numbers of COVID-19 cases, people are spending more time in LA County jails than before the pandemic. According to a UCLA School of Law report I co-authored, 41 percent of people held pretrial were in jail for six months or longer as of Sept. 10. Before the pandemic, in January 2020, that figure was 35 percent. These delays for incarcerated people threaten their constitutional rights to a speedy trial and access to counsel, and expose them to a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.

Two issues in particular have contributed to more people sitting in jail awaiting trial during the pandemic. First, the former presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, Kevin C. Brazile, issued nearly a dozen orders in 2020,  which delayed trials from March through September and created a backlog of at least 7,000 criminal cases. Second, the failure of the sheriff’s department to minimize exposure in the jails has caused people to be quarantined, leading to people missing court dates and having difficulty getting access to counsel, which often lead to delays in release. 

Responsible officials should be doing everything possible to decrease the number of people in jails and the time they spend there, rather than letting people languish in dangerous and deadly conditions. That entails releasing and prioritizing jury trials for those in custody. If court and jail policies and practices are not immediately and significantly altered, the rates of COVID-19 in our jails will steadily increase, potentially leading to more deaths and further community spread.

In writing the report, we reviewed state and local policies on pretrial release and quarantining practices, local jail data, and over 400 accounts submitted between June and September from people incarcerated in Los Angeles County. A harsh picture of reality emerged: Over half of people we heard from who were being held in jails were incarcerated pretrial and a staggering 66 percent had underlying health conditions, placing them at high risk if they contract COVID-19. Eighty-eight percent of the incarcerated people had been placed in quarantine or isolation at some point, and nearly two-thirds stated they had missed court dates. 

One individual incarcerated in an LA County jail reported missing seven court dates because of being exposed to COVID-19 numerous times. Another person was held pretrial for over a month after a judge ordered him released because he was placed on quarantine.

The sheriff’s department has repeatedly allowed people inside to be exposed to deputies moving between dorms and to people whose test results have not yet been returned. After this exposure, if a later test comes back positive, or someone begins to display symptoms, that housing unit is immediately quarantined. The exposure and the subsequent quarantine are preventable, and yet both are happening at alarming rates. 

Our analysis shows that this prolonged detention heavily affects Black and Latinx communities, who make up the largest percentage of the jail population and who often face unaffordable and higher bail amounts than their white counterparts. While 34 percent of the white jail population was incarcerated pretrial for six months or longer, that figure was 40 percent for Latinx people and 44 percent for Black people, according to our data analysis. 

Jailing people for longer periods of time during a deadly pandemic is unconstitutional and unacceptable. In law school, we are taught that speedy trial rights and access to counsel are paramount. It is disturbing to see how utterly false this notion is in practice in our state and county when it comes to people who are incarcerated pretrial.

LA County has a duty to protect all of its residents and abide by the Constitution. Local officials need to immediately reduce the jail population by releasing people pretrial (with special attention to those who are medically vulnerable), stop the overreliance on quarantine practices that prevent people from attending multiple court dates, and prioritize jury trials for those held in custody. Although LA County resumed jury trials in September for a brief period, the Superior Court continues to issue extensions that delay trial dates for weeks. This means that people will continue to be held pretrial for unacceptable periods and exposed to COVID-19, well into the new year. 

Too many people are suffering, and too many people have died. And the more the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons is ignored, the more we also endanger those on the outside. LA County must depopulate its jails and uphold the rights of those who are imprisoned to prevent the dangers of further illness and death. 

Amy Munro is a third-year student at the UCLA School of Law.

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