JusticeLA urges the immediate release of our community members incarcerated pretrial; urges LASD to fund and expand technology for remote access to pandemic court proceedings from their existing budget
At the close of January 2021, LA County presiding Judge Eric C. Taylor, of the Superior Court of California, issued a new General Order. The order authorizes judicial emergency continuances for Criminal and Juvenile Dependency court cases. The Judge stated that he made this order based on the high number of COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles County. This order will extend the length of time that our incarcerated community members are held pretrial in both adult and youth jails across the County. Activists, community members, public defenders, organizers, legal scholars and policy experts are all horrified.
Despite the clarion calls of community, and the research proving the deadly impacts of COVID-19 in the jails, the Presiding Judge has issued an order that increases the deadliness of COVID for our incarcerated loved ones.
Eunisses Hernandez, Co-founder and Executive Director of La Defensa, highlights the urgency of opposing this order from the presiding Judge. She says, “Judge Taylor’s order shows blatant disregard for our community members’ humanity. This disregard runs throughout the entire criminal legal system. Judge Taylor is acting without considering the detrimental impact of COVID-19 on our incarcerated loved ones. The Judge is out of step with the Measure J voter-mandate to invest in care rather than punishment. He is also out of step with the LA County Board of Supervisors’ commitment to a care-first vision. The Courts must course-correct and prioritize the health and safety of our community members.”
The lived experience and testimony of our community members shows just how negligent and harmful the conditions created by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department inside the jails are. Rojas, LA Organizer with Young Women’s Freedom Center, shares the way that pretrial incarceration has harmed them, saying, “When I was incarcerated in the County jail pretrial, I had to bunk up with someone with asthma & breast cancer. It was so dangerous to have people with serious health concerns in cells with multiple people during the pandemic. LASD didn’t show any regard for our risk of getting COVID-19. They also gave out masks that were extremely poor quality — the masks were made out of ripped sheets, and didn’t prevent the spread of viruses. I was supposed to have Court in seventy-two hours, but I had to wait five extra days. I was kept in for eight days total. I had no charges but because of my parole they left me in there.” Rojas’ experience shows LASD’s irresponsible holding of our community members for prolonged periods, endangering their lives.
Rojas continues, “I had a different bunkie each day, and they never separated anyone for COVID-safety in the holding tanks. They even put me in a cell with no water.” Rojas’ experience is not isolated: countless members of our communities have reported conditions of abuse and the stark impossibility of social distancing in the County jails.
The JusticeLA Coalition has long been fighting against pretrial incarceration, taking a strong stance against the use of risk assessments that increase the length and severity of pretrial detention. JusticeLA has partnered with others in coalition to author policy that will preserve the presumption of innocence for our community members who are charged with, but not convicted of, a crime. We are working to preserve the presumption of innocence and ensure the pretrial release of our community members through an LA County pilot program, as well as through statewide policy advocacy.
Titilayo Rasaki, Policy Associate at Essie Justice Group, who leads pretrial justice policy work, shares, “It is essential that we don’t cause further harm to our community members by exposing them to COVID-19 while they are waiting for their court hearings. It is immoral that the LA County Presiding Judge Taylor wants to extend our loved ones’ pretrial incarceration. The harm caused by this decision extends out to the disportionately Black women with incarcerated loved ones. Families and communities are fighting to free their loved ones while struggling to keep families financially afloat, and tend to the weighty mental health burdens of children with incarcerated parents. It is inconceivable that the Presiding Judge is standing in the way of the safety, health and human rights of our loved ones, and blocking their release. ”
In addition to the urgent need for pretrial release, the JusticeLA Coalition calls for video conferencing technology to be used temporarily during the pandemic to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during Court proceedings. LASD has failed to provide appropriate conditions to socially distance in Los Angeles County jails; as a result, our community members are forced to quarantine, leading to them missing their court cases. Video conferencing technology will move along court cases that were previously on hold due to the need to quarantine in jails. We are clear that the funding for this video technology should come out of the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s (LASD’s) existing budget, rather than be another reason why LASD advocates to extract more of our community’s tax dollars. We note that Progressive District Attorneys have called for these video conferencing capabilities. In addition, we note that if our loved ones were allowed to come home to handle their Court case from their home community, instead of being detained pretrial, the Sheriff’s Department would not need to pay for video conferencing in the first place.
COVID-19 had already extended the average length of pretrial incarceration for our loved ones by many months. The presiding Judge’s new order will extend the length of time our loved ones are incarcerated for by even longer. Research from the UCLA Bail Practicum has shown how dangerous and harmful the extended stays of our community members in pretrial detention are. In December 2020, the UCLA Bail Practicum released a report, “Counting the Days: The Story of Prolonged Detention During COVID-19,” that highlighted the deadly impacts of prolonging pretrial detention in the LA County jails.
Alicia Virani, Director of the Criminal Justice Program at UCLA School of Law and a former public defender, says, “It is disturbing to see the Presiding Judge of LA County ignoring the will of the people and the scientific data that shows how our already-most-vulnerable community members are being exposed to the threats of COVID-19 at heightening risk levels because of prolonged pretrial incarceration. With this new order from the Presiding Judge, we are moving in a direction that is diametrically opposed to the health and safety of our loved ones. The County needs to devise procedures to release people instead of continuing to increase arrests and delay court dates, which has led to an unacceptable backlog of criminal cases. Releases are the only effective way to keep incarcerated people and court staff safe, and to protect people’s constitutional rights.”
Other JusticeLA Coalition members share Virani’s concern. Rebecca Brown, Legal Fellow from Court Watch LA, underscores the urgent need to release people back into our communities, saying, “The Los Angeles Superior Court, as well as the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office and Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, have a number of strategies available to them to make the superior courts safer. We implore those offices to urgently implement the use of strategies that will not result in longer periods of pretrial incarceration for our community members.”
Brown continues, “The court and prosecutors need to reconsider what cases are being filed and heard at this time. Forcing people into court for traffic infractions or low-level misdemeanor offenses is contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in the courts, while continuing to criminalize poverty in the midst of the pandemic. And, over 445 court employees have tested positive for COVID-19, showing risks across all parts of the system. The solution to this crisis is not incarcerating people for indefinite periods of time, but a meaningful re-evaluation of Los Angeles’s criminal legal system.” Brown raises the critical point that, for something as insignificant as a traffic ticket, our community members are being forced into incarceration. This explicit criminalization of poverty, which can lead our most vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure, is deeply unjust. None of our community members should risk exposure to COVID-19 due to pretrial detention. Presiding Judge Taylor’s order must be rescinded, and the Courts must speed the progress of slowed cases with temporary access to video conferencing technology. Ultimately, we must release our loved ones so that they can return home.