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To: Judges of the Los Angeles County Superior Court
Humanity Not Cages: Demand a Just and Humane Response to COVID-19
We are writing as advocates, community members impacted by incarceration, loved ones of people impacted by criminalization. We are writing urgently to ask that the Los Angeles Superior Court take the following steps to prevent thousands of people from contracting COVID-19 in the jails and courts. The Superior Court must act immediately to issue orders releasing people who are currently detained in our jails and juvenile halls pretrial.
Default to noncustodial sentences wherever possible, including resolutions that avoid immigration detention where outbreak potential is highest.
Reduce number of in-person court appearances for non-essential issues and low-level cases. If requested by defense counsel, agree to waive clients’ appearance for status court dates (for people both in and out of custody).
Decline to issue “failure to appear” warrants or “bench warrants.”
Cancel all probation, parole, and pretrial meetings; court-ordered classes; in-person drug testing; collection of court debt; and modify all reporting conditions to phone-reporting.
Cancel probation or parole revocation hearings based on technical violations upon request of defense counsel and release those held in custody pending hearings on signature bonds.
Require that prosecutors provide public health/COVID-19-informed justification for any actions/requests that would bring people into courthouses, jails, and prisons. Ensure those justifications are on the record for public scrutiny.
Heavily consider the significant risk of mortality and spread of COVID-19 inside custodial facilities and follow these guidelines for keeping the community safe, both in and out of jail, when considering bail applications and post-conviction motions to modify sentences.
Extend paid sick leave to all employees, including those with temporary/part-time employment status.
Why is this important?
The conditions inside L.A. County jails and juvenile halls are inhumane, period. In Men’s Central Jail, multiple people share a cell about 6 feet by 6 feet, and generally only leave the cell for one hour a day. They lack necessary hygiene products and adequate medical treatment. Under ordinary circumstances, the jail is unsafe; during this pandemic, it is a potential death trap.
This week, Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile of the Los Angeles Superior Court condemned more people into this death trap by issuing an order detailing the Los Angeles Superior Court’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The order appropriately reduces the number and types of court proceedings until at least April 16, 2020. While the order protects judges and court staff from the virus, it may make the situation more dangerous for the people held in jails and juvenile halls.
In Los Angeles County Black community members are booked at staggeringly disproportionate rates. While only 9 percent of LA County residents are Black, Black people make up 29 percent of the jail population. The majority of people in the LA County jails are Black and Brown, and their lives are at risk. The judges have all the power to give them their freedom.
Judges have immense discretion to release people pretrial. California law allows for adults charged with misdemeanors and all non-capital felony offenses to be released on their own recognizance. Instead of releasing people, Judge Brazile’s order extends the amount of time that people could remain locked up in these dangerous conditions. Pursuant to the order, those booked into custody for felonies may now have to wait 7 days before seeing the judge, instead of the usual 48 hours.
The consequences of pretrial detention are harmful under any circumstances. Suicides in jail are most likely to occur in the first week of incarceration. People incarcerated pretrial risk losing their housing, employment, and public benefits. These are long-term consequences for people who are presumed innocent by law, and who likely remain in jail because they cannot pay for their freedom. The consequences of pretrial incarceration are even more severe in the context of a pandemic.
When COVID-19 emerges in our jails and juvenile halls, it will spread quickly given how many people are crammed into cells in poor sanitary conditions. Incarcerating youth and adults pretrial for longer periods of time is completely contrary to public health recommendations. When courts restrict someone’s liberty by incarcerating them, they then bear the burden of caretaking.
Judge Brazile’s order also extends the time limits for preliminary hearings and trials, presumably to reduce the burden on the court. However, people incarcerated pretrial, faced with the possibility of awaiting trial in jail, often plead guilty regardless of their actual guilt. Faced with an additional 30 days in jail awaiting trial, and at extreme risk of contracting a deadly disease, most people will give up their trial right if it means getting out sooner. This coercive process is unfair, undermines the integrity of our courts and saddles people with wrongful convictions that can have lifelong consequences. This is not the fair process that our constitution envisions. Even in times of crisis when understandably things must change and adapt, we must uphold the rights of people who are incarcerated.
This is why the Superior Court must act immediately to issue orders releasing people who are currently detained in our jails and juvenile halls pretrial. Failure to do the above will severely endanger people locked up in jail, jail staff, their families and their communities.
Demand that they act now to protect as many people as possible.