Officials must work to release low-risk, non-violent offenders during COVID

Officials must work to release low-risk, non-violent offenders during COVID
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The COVID-19 pandemic is a moment of intense crisis that has impacted everyone across the country in a variety of ways. But one of the more under-reported aspects of how coronavirus is affecting our society is how the lack of social distancing in the criminal justice system can impact public health. 

While the nation’s focus has primarily been on the developments in Washington, officials in Los Angeles County have been mobilizing to meet the moment and help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Fortunately, technology permits many of the prosecutors in the district attorney’s office to continue doing their work remotely, but there remains a bottleneck in our jail and prison populations.

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To that effect, last month at the onset of the pandemic, I directed prosecutors in the district attorney’s office to take steps to lower the number of people in local jails and area courthouses. I asked my attorneys to prioritize public health in every decision they make, particularly by keeping non-violent offenders out of our jails and courthouses during this pandemic.

There are a number of steps that I’ve taken over the past several weeks to ensure this, including delaying the filing of new cases, reevaluating pretrial cases to allow nonviolent offenders who do not pose a danger to the community to remain outside the criminal justice system, and considering whether a defendant is at high risk of exposure to coronavirus as a factor in setting bail or releasing the defendant.

I’ve also directed head deputy district attorneys to expand the use of the existing Pre-filing Diversion Program (PDP) that diverts people from entering the criminal justice system on specified misdemeanors and felonies by opting for office hearings as opposed to criminal filings.

Working to reduce our overcrowded jail and prison population so we don’t further spread the virus is a concern of paramount importance. This is particularly urgent as reports have surfaced of numerous horror stories in America’s jails and prisons, including the recent news that the Cook County jail is now the largest known source of infections in the country.

That’s why in addition to keeping new non-violent offenders out of our system, I am working with the sheriff and public defender’s offices to review about 3,000 cases involving in-custody defendants using the same standards to determine if they are a risk to public safety or can be safely returned to the community on their own recognizance while awaiting trial.

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While I am working with the sheriff's department and my deputies to ensure the early release of many non-violent offenders, I am also very cognizant of the fact that as the district attorney, I have a constitutional duty to keep the residents of Los Angeles County safe from violent crime, even during national emergencies. 

Many Angelenos are worried about the threat of theft or violent crime during this period of immense uncertainty and vulnerability. Additionally, coronavirus-related scams are also unfortunately rampant in this national emergency, including price gouging, email phishing, and other fraud.

But ultimately, criminal justice leaders can both keep people safe from crime and fraud, while also releasing low-risk, non-violent offenders to avoid furthering the pandemic.

During these unprecedented times, it’s more important than ever that local officials unite together to meet the urgency of the moment. In the criminal justice system, we need more officials across the country to think creatively and explore ways to release low-risk non-violent offenders to avoid furthering the pandemic. 

Navigating the delicate balance of public health and public safety to ensure that we halt the spread of this highly contagious and deadly virus while keeping our residents safe from violent crime is not easy, but we must rise up to the challenge.

Jackie Lacey is the district attorney of Los Angeles County.