Examining the Impact Coronavirus is Having on Los Angeles Penal and Criminal System

There are more than two million people incarcerated in American prisons. Los Angeles is home to the largest county jail system in the United States. This population is vulnerable to disease outbreaks, and there’s only so much that can be done to protect them from potential exposure to the coronavirus. Here’s a look at how the epidemic is impacting the criminal defense system in Los Angeles.

The Impact on Police

Local authorities are caught between keeping the public safe and officers safe. After all, police are not immune to the virus. In mid-March, the LAPD confirmed its first coronavirus case.

Police have shifted their tactics to deal with the quarantine and over-crowded courts and prisons. One is essentially ending arrests for minor offenses. Observers like criminal justice attorney Ambrosio Rodriguez have stated that daily arrests have fallen from 300 to 60. The drop in incoming offenders in conjunction with steady releases has reduced the jail population by more than six hundred.

impact of coronavirus - mask image by rottonara from Pixabay
Image by rottonara from Pixabay

Officers Being Called to Play a Different Role

Another change has been the shifting of detectives from community stations to daily patrols to ensure peace. For example, they’re now supervising grocery stores. This put at least an additional three hundred officers on patrol. They will still answer calls and send officers out on emergencies, however.

Patrol officers have been issued sets of gloves, goggles, and bacteria protection masks to be worn when dealing with a possible virus patient.

The LAPD closed their walk-up service and front desks, but they are still serving the public. However, they’re asking people to send emails to unique email addresses associated with the 21 area front desks.

The Impact on Prisoners Already in Prison

The Los Angeles sheriff’s office released approximately 1,700 inmates on March 24. This reduced the inmate population by ten percent. It’s important to note that no one in the prison as of writing has tested positive for COVID-19. The intent is to reduce overcrowding in the prison and the risk to low-risk prisoners of contracting the virus if it did reach LA prisons.

The inmates released were all non-violent offenders and had less than thirty days left on their sentences. The sheriff’s office is releasing inmates who don’t necessarily have a home to go back to. This accounts for about a third of those in the county jail system. The county is trying to find them a place to stay, but it says it will not keep them in prison because they don’t have a home.

The LA Sheriff’s office doesn’t expect another large-scale prisoner release. However, it is planning on releasing prisoners who may be sick into the care of the health department. Most prisoners transferred this way have terminal illnesses.

San Quentin has set up a quarantine area in two cell blocks. One of these is the unit where new prisoners arrive. The prison says that it has put nearly two thousand prisoners in quarantine after they reported flu-like symptoms.

However, as of writing, no prisoners tested positive for the virus. On the other hand, they’re limiting testing for the coronavirus. Someone must show symptoms to get tested for the flu. If that’s negative, then they are tested for COVID-19. The only exception is older prisoners with chronic health conditions. These prisoners are considered for immediate COVID-19 testing.


LA is taking a number of steps to stem the spread and impact of the coronavirus outbreak, if and when it should hit the prison system. It is also working to protect first responders from this new risk to their health.