As the COVID19 pandemic spread across the country it became clear that America’s endless network of cages — the county jails, state and federal prisons, and immigrant detention centers — is an extraordinarily dangerous breeding ground for the disease. Already, according to the New York Times, 19 of the top 30 clusters of coronavirus are in jails and prisons. And an appalling lack of action by media-darling Gov. Andrew Cuomo has turned New York’s Riker’s Island into a public health disaster.
To prevent a similar disaster in California, the Judicial Council, the policy-making body of the state court system, took the long-overdue step of eliminating cash bail for misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses. While there’s still a long way to go in applying the order statewide, in Los Angeles we’ve seen the jail population drop from a horrifying 17,000 to a still-horrifying-but-less-so 11,800. At the same time, crime has plummeted across the city.
This welcome news, of course, runs counter to the needs of the Los Angeles Police Department budget and the narrative of the police state. The LAPD, which happens to have at least 19 officers in full-time public relations roles, found a willing stenographer at the Los Angeles Times, leading to the publication of an insult to your intelligence under the title “Arrested 4 times in 3 weeks: L.A. police blame zero bail for rise in repeat offenders.”
This bit of fearmongering uses the specter of career criminals to attack the bail reforms that are a moral and public health necessity — at any time, but particularly during a pandemic. And they do so by betting that you’re an absolute dipshit who can’t count.
They write: “An examination of LAPD arrests shows that while arrests are down 37% in the last month, those arrested multiple times is up compared to the same time last year. Persons with multiple arrests now account for 5% of all arrests compared with 4% the same period in 2019. Multiple arrests now account for 10% of all arrests compared with 8% in 2019 for that time.”
Well, that’s odd — what do we learn from comparing multiple arrests AS A PERCENTAGE OF ALL ARRESTS when total arrests are down? Leaving aside the vague terminology (what makes one a person “with multiple arrests”?) it turns out that it’s the only way to create an impression of an increase: with arrests down 37%, those numbers show a decline in the actual number of “multiple arrests.”
If the number of repeat offenders remained constant despite the arrest slowdown, you’d see them representing more than 6%, rather than 5% — and even more if they were somehow emboldened by bail reform, as this cop-touching nonsense suggests. Instead, what we can see is that arrests have plunged all across the city, and multiple arrests — which are often of people suffering from substance abuse or mental health issues, or of persons in neighborhoods targeted for over-enforcement — have fallen, but less dramatically.
So what’s going on here? We’ve seen the same playbook used recently in New York, where the New York Post and similar rags pushed bad faith attacks on the state’s historic bail reform laws, sensationalizing stories of single Dangerous Criminals Set Free (here, the LAT’s “Eric Medina”) and avoiding the actual crime statistics (in addition to ignoring the powerful impact of freedom on people’s lives, the second chances made good, the families kept together).
Eventually, Gov. Cuomo was able to force through a rollback of the bail reforms in his coronavirus budget, sending even more poor black and brown people to the growing deathcamp of Riker’s Island.
As the pandemic winds down and the courts begin to reopen, we have a powerful opportunity to make these changes permanent. We have demonstrated the safety of the new rules and have a moral obligation to end cash bail, and to build a Los Angeles that seeks to improve through care rather than cages. But, as that LA Times article demonstrates, we can see the propaganda machine gearing up to demand a return of mass incarceration.
They’re hoping you can’t count.
Ace Katano is an editor at KNOCK.LA and a member of AFSCME Local 148, the LA County Public Defenders Union.