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Op-Ed: Make the L.A. County courts' emergency zero-bail policy permanent

LA Times logo LA Times 6/28/2022 Meredith Gallen and Garrett Miller
The L.A. County Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles has long been severely overcrowded, until the COVID pandemic. (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times) © Provided by LA Times The L.A. County Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles has long been severely overcrowded, until the COVID pandemic. (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles County Superior Court leadership recently announced that it would end a commonsense policy adopted in April 2020 that helped limit the spread of COVID-19 in jails.

The court’s emergency zero-bail order has allowed people accused of misdemeanors and lower-level crimes to work and care for family members rather than sit in dangerously overcrowded jails while awaiting trial. The Superior Court is set to end this policy on Thursday, without any evidence that it will lead to increased public safety.

There is a growing understanding among policymakers, advocates and other stakeholders across the United States that the cash bail system is unfair, fails to promote public safety and does far more harm than good for families and communities affected by the criminal legal system. Here in Los Angeles — contradicting the scare tactics raised by law enforcement and politicians — data on pretrial outcomes compiled by the county chief executive officer shows that after the implementation of the emergency bail order, “rates of failure to appear in court (FTA) and of rearrest for new offenses remained either below or similar to their historical averages.

Data from jurisdictions that have passed bail reform shows that the vast majority of people who are released pretrial return home and resolve or go to trial on their cases without incident, and the practice has actually led to a decrease in crime.

In 2016, New Mexicans amended the state constitution to prohibit judges from imposing unaffordable cash bail and enable judges to release many defendants without bond. There is little evidence the change has led to an increase in violent crime. In fact, crime rates dropped across the state since then. And in 2017, the New Jersey Legislature passed a law largely eliminating the use of cash bail. This led to a decrease in those detained pretrial and a reduction in violent crime by 16% over two years.

Ending the zero-bail policy won't improve public safety, but would greatly exacerbate the Los Angeles County jails’ overcrowding crisis. The jails’ rated capacity by the Board of State and Community Corrections is 12,404 people. Prior to the zero-bail order, the jails held over 17,000 people. Even with the order still in effect, the jails remain over capacity. This overcrowding has led to people sleeping on the floor of the Inmate Reception Center because there are no beds. Lifting the policy would significantly increase the number of people brought into the jail system on any given day.

Currently, almost 47% of people held in Los Angeles County Jails are detained while awaiting trial, separated from their families and subject to the harms of incarceration without having been convicted of any crime. This pretrial incarceration contributes to the jail system’s chronic overcrowding and has failed to serve the county’s most vulnerable for decades.

Pretrial incarceration overburdens every aspect of the criminal legal system — it is also incredibly expensive. Perhaps most importantly, people jailed before trial face unjust pressure to plead guilty to their charges, regardless of actual guilt or innocence. More people in custody puts added stress on already overworked public defenders because in-custody cases have to move at a quicker pace to shield defendants from further harm in custody and to prevent them from pleading guilty for the sole purpose of getting released.

Data from other jurisdictions and Los Angeles County’s own experience with zero bail for low level offenses, show that we can elevate evidence-based practices to maintain safety of our communities while protecting constitutional freedoms. Los Angeles County Superior Court’s emergency zero-bail order is a good, safe policy that should be made permanent.

Meredith Gallen and Garrett Miller are members of the board of directors of the Los Angeles County Public Defenders Union Local 148. 

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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