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Op-Ed: COVID-19 is being used as a reason to keep people jailed without a trial. This has to stop

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Men's Central Jail facility in Los Angeles
Men’s Central Jail near downtown Los Angeles.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

Imagine being one of the more than 14,000 individuals locked up in Los Angeles County’s expansive jail system and hearing that nearly every business in the county is open at 100% capacity.

Now, imagine being told that your constitutional right to a trial has been put on hold again because of COVID-19 concerns. The county’s presiding judge has acknowledged the diminished pandemic risk and has removed all social distancing requirements. At this point, the court should not be allowed to use COVID-19 as an excuse to incarcerate people without a trial.

Under the law, a person in custody has a right to a speedy trial within 30 or 60 days of their arraignment depending on the level of the charge. However, since the start of the pandemic, the county court has sought and obtained from the California Supreme Court automatic continuances of trials. On Friday, the court said the order has been extended again to Aug. 13.

For many months last year, there were no jury trials at all. Even now, very few trials are taking place. Under the current extension orders, defendants who have been arrested and incarcerated cannot get a jury trial unless the prosecutor agrees to proceed. On any given day, the number of trials occurring now is probably less than 20% of the number before pandemic emergency extensions were put in place.

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Many of our clients have been waiting three, six, 12 months or longer for their trials. They have lived out the pandemic behind bars, where they have been unable to practice social distancing and are denied access to appropriate safety measures. They have been repeatedly placed on restrictive quarantines and many of them have tested positive for the coronavirus during their incarceration.

Many are quite reasonably tempted to plead guilty just to get out of custody, even though they continue to maintain that they are innocent. Pleading guilty for the sole purpose of getting out of custody — because that would be faster than waiting for a trial — is not justice.

Although there was good reason for a freeze on jury trials during the earlier part of the pandemic — before vaccines were developed and authorized for use — we are now far removed from the worst periods of infection.

Everyone in the court system has been able to get vaccinated if they wanted to. If 100 people can gather in a crowded bar, or 20,000 people can gather in Staples Center, our clients can and must be allowed to have their constitutionally mandated trials without further delay.

This pandemic is not fully over, especially with the recent rise in cases involving the Delta variant. It makes good sense to continue requiring safety measures in the courthouse that are based on current scientific guidance — including masking, social distancing and limiting nonessential hearings. However, jury trials are at the heart of the criminal justice system. Continuing to delay them does not adhere to current local, state, and national scientific guidance.

The county court system may face some logistical challenges in resuming trials, but those certainly do not outweigh our clients’ constitutional right to proper and timely trials.

If we’re able to rub shoulders in a crowded bar or stadium, then a constitutionally mandated trial should be able to proceed, especially when a person’s freedom is on the line. Jury trials should resume and no further trial extensions should be granted.

Garrett Miller, an attorney, is a board member of the Los Angeles County Public Defenders Union.


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