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The crisis Los Angeles is facing as we confront COVID-19 does not take place in a vacuum. It is a public health crisis that converges with many decisions we have made as a county thus far. Decades of investing in policing and punishment have put our health at greater risk.

In this moment, it has become both a common sense response and an urgent undertaking to reduce jail populations across the country. The call to reduce jail populations is not new. The demand has been spearheaded for decades by currently and formerly incarcerated people, their families, and those who have seen firsthand the ways policing and incarceration have torn apart families and driven city and county budgets away from healthcare, housing and workforce development systems, and told stories about our loved ones that manufacture ruthless support of their displacement from our lives.

COVID-19 is forcing communities across the country to confront the reality that we are all safer if we reject the punitive instincts that drive the criminal legal system. Many jurisdictions have taken that step with the goal of preventing the spread of the virus, not only in local jails, but among the broader community. In March, 30 district attorneys issued a national letter calling for more people to be released from custody. In April, the California Judicial Council ordered judges to reduce bail amounts to $0 for misdemeanors and non-serious felonies. The New York City Board of Corrections wrote a formal letter to the city’s leadership urging for reductions in jail populations to reduce the severity of an outbreak. The chief medical officer of Correctional Health Services in New York was also clear that, despite having what he considered the best healthcare workforce in the world, it was unlikely that any efforts by health professionals in the jails would stop the outbreak.  

Jails are built for control and punishment, not for wellbeing, nor the prevention of disease. As early as 1996, a Department of Justice investigation into the county jail highlighted the failure of medical and mental health practices in preventing suicides; this does not account for the very high risk of suicides amongst people recently released from jails. A string of suicides in the jails 20 years later exposed that the pattern continued and reforms were either incomplete or insufficient. The LA County Sheriff’s Department, which operates the jails, regularly tops the county’s list as the most costly source of annual litigation. Over one-third of lawsuits brought against the sheriff’s department by people in custody include claims of failure to provide medical care. In LA, a history of legal interventions demonstrate that no matter how we attempt to “improve” jails, they continue to not only fail to manage health crises, but often produce them.

This is why experts and community leaders from across the country recently co-wrote a letter calling on the Center for Disease Control to include the reduction of jail populations in its COVID-19 guidelines. While the criminal legal system’s culture of punishment would have us believe that people in jail are separate from our communities, in fact, jails represent a convergence of many vectors of transmission that move diseases in and out of these spaces at a rapid pace. In LA, sheriff personnel entering, operating, and leaving the largest jail system in the country should give us all pause, especially as recent evidence suggeststhat the county has underestimated the number of positive cases by hundreds of thousands.

There is nothing natural or necessary about the size of the LA jails system nor the size of the workforce that operates it. Its scale is not the product of crime rates, but rather political decisions to respond to the public health crises of homelessness, substance use, and mental health emergencies largely with increased policing and arrest, and by incarcerating people pre-trial, which worsens their conditions. These responses particularly target Black and brown people despite evidence showing that communities of color are less likely to have contraband. 

After years of trying to arrest its way out of public health crises, LA is facing the fallout. Between 2012 and 2017, the LA County Sheriff’s Department spent $80 million and $56 million respectively incarcerating people in the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, which are seeing higher numbers of COVID-19 positive people than many of the 346 cities and communities that have reported cases within the county. During the same period, the sheriff’s department spent $23 million incarcerating people in Long Beach, which currently has more cases of COVID-19 than any other city in the county. These three cities have populations that are at least 30% Black. It is hard to refute that if we had invested millions more in health care workers, treatment beds for people in crisis, and housing, we would be better off today. Increased access to health care, housing, and treatment within one’s community have all been shown to reduce crime and recidivism,including violent crime. These solutions would have made our communities safer and better prepared to address the daunting challenges presented by COVID-19, including managing the transmission capacity and infection rate of what is still the largest jails system in the world. Instead, the county’s investments in vectors of punishment—what system actors decide is “criminal” as well how and where they choose to deploy force as a response—have instead fed a jail system that has intensified the frequency of disease transmission.

A year ago, LA County Sheriff Alexander Villanueva was undercutting positive criminal justice reforms with critiques that large-scale diversion—moving people out of the jails and into alternatives such as treatment—was unrealistic, but an independent study has since validated the Office of Diversion and Reentry’s report that the mental health population in the jails could be reduced by at least 56%. In March, shortly after the state of emergency was announced, Villanueva had reduced daily bookings from 300 per day to 60 as part of the department’s COVID-19 response. While it’s encouraging to watch demands for reduced arrests led by communities most impacted by incarceration become common sense, it is discouraging that it took a life threatening pandemic to prove their necessity.

As of this week, the jail population has been reduced from 17,000 to below 12,000 people. Emptying almost 5000 jail beds to prevent an outbreak is certainly a historic accomplishment. However, it is still inadequate because it never should have been necessary in the first place. The situation is becoming more dire as today there are over 2000 people “quarantined” in our county jail system. This is a system that cannot possibly meet CDC guidelines, one that has accepted an inevitable community spread of the virus among those detained, and which employs negligent testing practices—as laid out in a class action lawsuit issued against the sheriff this week by Dignity and Power Now, the Youth Justice Coalition, and nine people currently in custody. Many of the people inside are legally innocent and no one in custody received a sentence from a judge that included disease or death. The county must do more to ensure that the fate of our loved ones is not determined by a department or a jail whose history would predict a disaster.

Just as the crisis presented by COVID-19 did not occur in a vacuum,  our solutions cannot be limited to emergency response. The instincts of punishment and the political decisions that have created the jail system have been proven to undermine all of our health. A week before county officials announced an emergency COVID-19 shutdown, the Board of Supervisors approved 114 recommendations for creating alternatives to incarceration. The recently approved public strategies are a roadmap that can scaffold our short-term solutions towards a healthier and more just LA. Continued reductions of both the jail population and daily bookings must be understood not as temporary remedies but as building blocks for long-term public health solutions such as the expansion of community-based care and housing, which make us safer. We need to invest in new instincts; new vectors of care that shift priorities, budgets, and values away from the practices that have made this crisis worse than what it should have been.

Mark-Anthony Jones

Mark-Anthony Jones