On July 18, Los Angeles County announced a plan to drastically reduce its reliance on cash bail. Effective October 1, the majority of people arrested for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies will no longer be required to post bail in order to be released from county jail while they await arraignment. The new bail schedule determines eligibility for pre-trial release based on perceived risk to the public.
The LA County jail system is the largest in the world. There are currently around 14,000 people in the county’s nine facilities; more than half are awaiting trial.
Though the overall number of people incarcerated in LA County jails has gradually decreased over the past 30 years, the number of people detained pre-trial has increased. So has the number of deaths in custody. Twenty-five people died in LA jails the first six months of 2023.
The pre-trial confinement crisis is a uniquely American phenomenon.
Conditions inside these jails are horrifying. People sleep on cockroaches or chained to chairs. Walls are smeared with feces. LA County has been increasingly using its jails to warehouse—and abuse—people with mental illness. The largest mental health facility in the United States, Twin Towers Correctional Facility, is also the largest jail in the world.
The pre-trial confinement crisis is a uniquely American phenomenon. People often spend months awaiting arraignment, and even a few days behind bars can be enough to lose their job or housing. Judges setting bail are often biased against Black defendants. Families who sign payment plans to buy release can be trapped in debt cycles for years. And in California, the average bail for felonies is around $50,000—five times the national average.
Not only is jail time itself often physically and mentally disabling for the individual people who experience it, but pre-trial detention specifically been shown to increase rates of so-called crime. Death records consistently show that most people who die in LA County jails are there on pre-trial confinement.
We need to build systems of care that aren’t predicated on violence and coercion.
Cash bail rewards wealth and punishes poverty. Grassroots coalitions like JusticeLA have been organizing against the county’s mass incarceration crisis for years, and the bail reform builds on that momentum. In May, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lawrence Riff made a preliminary ruling that it was unconstitutional to detain people in jail while they await arraignment solely because they couldn’t afford to post bail for their release.
Urquidi v. Los Angeles temporarily reinstated the “zero-bail” policy that LA County had implemented early in the pandemic, one where the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are no longer authorized to require bail from people arrested on certain nonviolent charges.
On the same day LA County unveiled its new bail schedule, Illinois became the first state to move forward with a plan to eliminate cash bail entirely. As public health and social science researchers, this gives us hope—we know how damaging the county jail system is to the health of a community. We need to build systems of care that aren’t predicated on violence and coercion. Healing doesn’t happen inside a cage.
Photograph via County of Los Angeles Supervisor Janice Hahn