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Op-ed: LA county jails were already in crisis. Coronavirus just raised the stakes

Last week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors took a transformative and historic step forward by adopting the groundbreaking alternatives to incarceration roadmap. Only one year ago, the board began this paradigm shift by cancelling jail construction projects that would have cost LA County residents billions of dollars. Communities impacted by incarceration have called for a divestment in jails and an investment in community-based services for decades, but the groundswell for change has now reached a fever-pitch with the onset of coronavirus.

Los Angeles County incarcerates more people than any other jail system in the nation. Seventeen thousand people in our county are caged in brutal conditions, without adequate access to medical care or basic hygiene needs, like soap and water. The jails currently operate at 136% capacity, exacerbating the spread of disease among an already medically vulnerable population. While many of us in the free world are able to practice harm reduction measures to protect ourselves from the deadly COVID-19 virus, our community members caged inside the jails remain at the mercy of LA County leadership.

Even before the threat of COVID-19, the people of Los Angeles knew our county was in a state of crisis — and that we needed to act fast.

The overcrowded, unsanitary and violent conditions inside LA County jails cost human lives every year. Just last week, Raul Barreto, a beloved advocate and survivor of the youth probation system, lost his life in Men's Central Jail. Community outrage with the deadly conditions inside of the jails delivered the landslide victory of Measure R, a resounding declaration that the jail population must be reduced and that alternatives should be built quickly. But as we wait for the county to build alternatives, LA’s jail system remains a tinderbox on the verge of erupting.

LA County’s leadership must now respond swiftly and courageously to save lives. JusticeLA and over 40 advocacy groups from across the county and state called on the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, along with the County Sheriff, the Department of Health Services-Correctional Health Services, the District Attorney, and the County Superior Court, to act immediately to protect against the spread of COVID-19 in the LA County jail system. In a letter addressed and sent to county officials Friday, advocates provided specific actions that need to be taken to properly protect individuals in custody, jail staff, and the broader community from the deadly virus. Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva responded by releasing more people and making fewer arrests, reducing the jail population from 17,000 to 16,400 in a matter of days, and reducing the number of daily bookings from 300 to 60 people a day.

It is not enough.

Fears of infection are causing service providers to start closing their doors to people who would otherwise be diverted out of jail and into treatment. It is now up to the Board of Supervisors to direct the health departments to create procedures that support community-based organizations to take diversion cases immediately. The board has the power to aggressively fund alternatives to incarceration now, and incentivize service providers to safely open their doors by providing guidance and education, access to testing, emergency diversion centers and added capacity. The county had set aside nearly $1 billion in general funds for jail construction that can and should be used to expedite the creation of community-based services that support the safe release of incarcerated people. The board has been slow to reinvest those dollars into alternatives, hinting at plans to build a new jail in the future. What this crisis has revealed is that the board must fully reject the notion that new jails can solve the county’s incarceration problem, and fully commit to a different vision, without caveats.

There has never been a more critical moment to resist bureaucratic impulses and immediately begin investing in lifesaving care.

The COVID-19 crisis has magnified the long-standing inadequacies of a system that routinely puts the lives of our more vulnerable community members in danger. LA County should not have waited until a global pandemic threatened the lives of over 17,000 people in our jails, and countless more in our communities, before taking decisive action. But now that the threat is at our doorstep, the county has no other choice but to expedite the release of our loved ones and build the system of care we need. For too long Los Angeles County has caged people with disabilities, mental health needs and chronic illness in inhumane conditions in the name of public safety. Now, in the name of public safety, we implore the Board of Supervisors and the rest of LA County leadership to respond with the urgency and courage that this moment demands of them.

Written on behalf of the JusticeLA Coalition. See the Reform LA Jails petition here.