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To: Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile

Humanity Not Cages: Demand a Just and Humane Response to COVID-19

Humanity Not Cages: Demand a Just and Humane Response to COVID-19

We write to you as the loved ones of people impacted by criminalization, people directly impacted by criminalization, academics, public defenders, defense attorneys, students, community members and community advocates fighting for the freedom of our community members and loved ones.

We are scared for the health and safety of people incarcerated in the jails as well as all staff that go in and out of these facilities on a daily basis, and their families and communities. Taking New York City as an example, Rikers Island jail went from 0 cases of COVID-19 to 180 cases in a span of two weeks. On March 30, 2020, Los Angeles County jails reported the first positive test for an individual incarcerated there. The Court must act now to prevent L.A. County jails from becoming the next Rikers Island.

Thank you for your leadership in issuing the “Emergency Bail Schedule Modification”. Setting bail at $0 for most offenses will significantly reduce the number of people incarcerated pretrial going forward, but we are in a moment where we have to do more.

Other LA County departments have already taken significant steps to release people from the jails, and have prevented thousands more from entering the jails. They have developed policies that have led to the reduction in the LA County jail population by over 2,500 people in a matter of weeks. You have the power to expedite release of vulnerable people and those pretrial.

We call on you, Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge and Supervising Judge of the Criminal Division to take the following steps to protect people from contracting and dying from COVD-19 inside the jails:

Act immediately and issue blanket release orders that will significantly decrease the number of people who are currently detained in our jails and juvenile halls; those who are not substantially likely to cause bodily harm to an identifiable person. A 15.5% decrease in the jail population to date is not sufficient to keep people safe.

Release all individuals held in County jails who are in custody only because of a probation or parole violation without regard to the underlying conviction.

Decline to follow the recommendations from California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye who authorized extending deadlines for arraignments, preliminary hearings and trials: Extending the time of felony arraignments to up to 7 days instead of the usual 48 hours; extending the time a person must wait before a preliminary hearing to 15 days; and extending trials by up to an additional 30 days. This process condemns people in Los Angeles County to conditions that will most surely expose them to COVID-19.

Delay implementation of the Pretrial Risk Assessment Pilot, as the tool does not take into account the risk of COVID-19.

Default to noncustodial sentences wherever possible, and resolutions that avoid immigration consequences that could ultimately result in immigration detention where outbreak potential is highest.

Cancel probation or parole revocation hearings based on technical violations, and release on signature bonds those held in custody pending hearings. Release all people held on “flash incarcerations.”

Reduce the number of in-person court appearances for non-essential issues and low-level cases. Agree to waive appearances for status court dates for people both in and out of custody, and for people charged with misdemeanors and felonies.

Decline to issue “failure to appear” warrants or “bench warrants.”

Postpone all probation, parole, and court-ordered classes; in-person drug testing; collection of court debt; and eliminate all reporting.

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.

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, and when conducting any court hearings.

Extend paid sick leave to all court employees, including those with temporary/part-time employment status.

Retroactively apply the “Emergency Bail Schedule Modification” to people currently incarcerated in the jails.

Failure to do the above will severely endanger people trapped in jail during this pandemic, as well as the jail staff, court staff, and their families and communities. You must take action now! We cannot afford to lose any more community members to COVID-19. I look forward to hearing how you will take action to protect our community members and Los Angeles County employees from a COVID-19 sentence.

Why is this important?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the legal system to a halt in Los Angeles County. Superior Court Judge Kevin Brazile, the county’s presiding judge, has issued three orders taking steps to address COVID-19, but none of them outline the policies necessary to quickly and appropriately depopulate the jails—the most important way to curb the spread of the disease and save thousands of lives.

On March 17, Brazile issued his initial order closing all courts in the county for three days. Five days later, he ordered the Sylmar Courthouse to be closed for three days following the news that a deputy public defender tested positive for coronavirus. On March 23, Brazile blocked public access to all county courthouses, placed delays on many criminal cases, and ordered the prioritization of bail hearings. While these types of emergency orders appropriately protect judges, attorneys, and court staff from this deadly virus, they may make the situation all the more dangerous for the thousands of Angelenos, mostly Black and Latinx, who remain trapped in jails and juvenile halls, awaiting court dates.

The conditions inside Los Angeles County jails and juvenile halls are already appalling. In Men’s Central Jail, some people share a cell about six feet by six 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 death sentence. The virus has entered the courts, and over the weekend, a person who is incarcerated in one of the jails tested positive for COVID-19; several individuals’ test results are pending. It is only a matter of time before the virus spreads, as it has in jails around the country.

On March 24, Brazile issued a press release announcing that an agreed upon list of individuals held pretrial will be released from custody. However, this announcement lacked any information about the criteria for release, the number of people who will be released, or a long-term release strategy. There is still no information on whether people on this list have been released.

Those who remain in custody, however, could remain locked up in these dangerous conditions for even longer than usual. As part of Brazile’s March 17 order, those booked into custody for felonies may now have to wait seven days before seeing a judge, instead of the usual 48 hours, and their trials can be extended by up to an additional 30 days.

Faced with the possibility of an additional month in jail awaiting trial, and at extreme risk of contracting a deadly disease, most people will give up their trial right, or plead out, if it means getting out sooner. This coercive process is unfair, undermines the integrity of our courts, and can saddle people with wrongful convictions and lifelong consequences.

Brazile has the power to right this ship and implement policies that protect everyone. California law allows judges to release adults charged with misdemeanors and all non-capital felony offenses without imposing money bail. The judiciary took the appropriate step and mandated $0 bail for most misdemeanors and certain categories of felonies. It is unclear whether these standards apply to individuals who were arrested and incarcerated before the COVID-19 crisis. It is urgent that people in custody pretrial are evaluated and quickly released, particularly those who are in custody simply because they cannot afford bail.

If the judiciary does not act, thousands of lives will continue to be at risk. While courts are closed to the public, attorneys, judges, and court employees are still going to court. According to Court Watch Los Angeles, some courtrooms had 30 to 40 people present as recently as March 20, clearly violating social distancing recommendations. With potential plans to proceed by consolidating even more cases in fewer courtrooms in the county, this situation could be exacerbated. By overburdening courtrooms with more cases, it is certain that people in custody will remain there longer while waiting to see a judge or resolve their case.

This is why Brazile must act immediately and order a release of a broad group of people: those who are not substantially likely to cause bodily harm to another person and those who are being held solely on probation/parole violations. In addition, judges should use their authority to release, without setting bail, those brought into court on their first appearances. Hearings for people out-of-custody should be postponed so that courts can prioritize arraignments, preliminary hearings, trials, and juvenile detention hearings for all individuals in custody and hold them within the normal statutory time limits. When hearings do occur, each courthouse should identify practices that allow for the social distancing necessary to keep everyone safe.

Failure to do the above will severely endanger people trapped in jail during this pandemic, as well as the jail staff, their families and their communities.

Judge Brazile must act now, before it’s too late.

Alicia Virani is the Gilbert Foundation associate director of the Criminal Justice Program at UCLA School of Law and was previously a public defender in Orange County.

Update: On Thursday, after this article was published, Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile issued an order indicating that Los Angeles County courts will extend preliminary hearings, trials, and arraignments well beyond what his March 17 order outlined: People in jail and charged with a felony may now have to wait up to 30 court days—the equivalent of six weeks—for their preliminary hearing and an additional 60 days for their trial.

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Updates

2020-04-15 22:52:17 -0700

1,000 signatures reached

2020-04-12 13:35:23 -0700

500 signatures reached

2020-03-22 18:49:44 -0700

100 signatures reached

2020-03-20 23:14:33 -0700

50 signatures reached

2020-03-20 18:32:36 -0700

25 signatures reached

2020-03-20 17:50:32 -0700

10 signatures reached