Los Angeles County Public Defender Ricardo D. García says the number of detained individuals in sheriff custody has been reduced by 5,000 over the past several weeks.
Garcia said inmates are being released early due to COVID-19 concerns. There are also new rules as to who is booked into custody across many law enforcement agencies, so less people are going to jail during the pandemic.
“Our jail started at the beginning of this with about 17,000 people. That's across all the custody facilities under sheriff control, and now we're down to just slightly above 12,000,” he said.
Garcia said he looked at pre-plea individuals to be released from sheriff custody.
“These are individuals who have just been charged and are presumed innocent,” he said. “Our criminal justice system is based on the foundation that the person is presumed innocent, and that is until the allegations are proven.”
Garcia said he worked with the courts independently and raised what he calls the “COVID factor” in his bail argument.
“We say, ‘Look, this person is high-risk,’ or ‘If it weren’t for their poverty, they should be able to bail out, and COVID is an additional factor for the court to consider.’ That was also very effective for us,” he said. “We created large groups of individuals that the [District Attorney] and our office agreed on, gave them to the court, and the court signed a larger release order.”
Garcia focused on pre-plea individuals because he believes it’s “fundamentally unfair” to hold poorer people in jail longer than richer people just because they can’t afford to post bail.
“What we see in our society and our community, unfortunately, is that the people with economic means can bail out of jail right away and fight those allegations from the safety of their own home,” he said. “The population we represent, the innocent and accused, don’t have that benefit. So effectively the jail was holding people [and] placing them at risk. A great number of people who are pre-plea, pre-adjudication, were held in jail not because they were or weren’t responsible for the actions they were accused of, but because they simply didn’t have the economic means to post their bail and be released."
California Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye initiated $0 cash bails for certain offenses in the state after realizing the inequity of the bail policy as well. Although the policy has its positives, the L.A. Times reported on Thursday that “in the first 30 days of the [zero-bail] policy, the Los Angeles Police Department has arrested 213 individuals multiple times, with 23 being arrested three or more times.”
In addition to pre-plea individuals, Garcia is also trying to release older inmates and people with pre-existing conditions.
“We tried to identify them and get them released if we could, and then place them into services,” he said. “We were really helped by the Department of Health Services, Office of Diversion and Reentry, as well as the Department of Mental Health to help identify existing services in the community that could take these individuals in safely and provide them with the both the existing care they needed [and] make sure they were placed in a location safely.”
Garcia said the novel coronavirus created a “life-or-death” situation for individuals in jail since they live in such tight quarters. When requesting to release inmates, Garcia had to find a balance between the community’s safety and public health.
“The vast majority of the individuals in local custody were people who were going to be released sometime within the next year, so these are not individuals who are off to state prison for long periods of time, that we have said are so dangerous we can't have members of our community,” he said. “These are people who we've said have committed an offense, they need to be held to answer for that answer for what they've done, but we've said for one reason or another, they are people they were going to accept back into our community within that year.”
Garcia determined that if these inmates weren’t sick, releasing them from jail wouldn’t threaten public health.
“Right now, we know when they were in jail, they hadn’t contracted the virus yet,” he said. “Let's see if we can get the safest and most efficient and caring way to get individuals out into the communities, back into their homes, so that we reduce the risk of infection and ultimately reduce the risk of a greater public health impact when a sick individual needs to be released from jail.”
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