The court-ordered victory shows that decarceration is not only possible, it’s critically important

This week, a state court judge in Orange County declared the end of a landmark lawsuit called Campbell v. Barnes. The suit was filed last summer at the height of the pandemic and sought the release of people in the county’s jails due to the unsanitary and crowded conditions, which put incarcerated people and staff at serious risk due to the spread of COVID-19.

The case is over, because the court found that OC Sheriff Don Barnes had substantially complied with a December order that had told him to reduce the jail population by 50 percent in all congregate living areas. The judge correctly asserted that people living in those areas couldn’t safely socially distance from one another. The court also ordered the jail to continue to take all necessary measures to ensure social distancing “until the current COVID-19 emergency is declared terminated.” This was one of the strongest court orders in the nation against a jail, prison, or immigration detention center during the pandemic.

When the ACLU and our partners filed the case last summer, more than 5,000 people were held in the massive jail system in a mixture of cells and large barracks-like dormitories where the virus easily spread like wildfire. But due to a combination of the court’s order requiring the jail to reduce the population density, local police issuing citations in lieu of arrests for low-level or non-violent offenses, fewer people incarcerated in the jail due to poverty and inability to pay bail, and early releases and time credits for people with limited time left to serve on jail sentences, the population of the OC Jails reached a historic 10-year low.

When the state first ordered the reduction, Sheriff Barnes and other elected officials did the rounds on TV denouncing the judge’s order and threatening that mayhem would ensue in the OC, and result in a wave of lawlessness and re-arrests. But that simply didn’t happen. The measures that were used to reduce the jail population were shown to be safe both in terms of public health and public safety.

Epidemiological studies of urban jails found that a 10 percent reduction in in the jail population was associated with a 56 percent decrease in transmission of the virus, leading the scientists to conclude that decarceration should be “a primary strategy for COVID-19 mitigation in jails.” Moreover, while some violent crimes have increased across the country in the past year, there is little evidence that people on release are behind the crimes, and the number of people accused of shootings or homicides are a fraction of the jail population.

Our mass incarceration crisis has been destroying our communities for decades, but the pandemic made its depravity and senselessness impossible to ignore.

Indeed, as the OC reduction order comes to an end at the hoped-for waning of the pandemic, the court-ordered reductions show that mass incarceration — with its tremendous societal and monetary costs — is not only unnecessary, but also horrifically damaging, especially to people of color and low-income communities. This is true not only in the OC, but in jails and prisons across the country.

For over a year, the COVID crisis has posed an urgent and imminent threat to incarcerated people who cannot socially distance or protect themselves from the virus through prescribed mitigation measures. Across the country, in response — albeit not to the degree needed to truly ensure public safety — criminal legal systems rethought their practices and departed from the status quo.

As the case ends and the pandemic begins to wane, it is critical that our policing, jail admissions, and prison sentencing systems do not return to business as usual — both in the OC and in communities across the U.S. We must end our addiction to the criminalization of poverty, mass incarceration, and endless construction of jails and prisons to lock up more people, disproportionately people of color.

COVID-19 showed us that we are able to change even our most ingrained habits and behaviors quickly when the need is urgent. Our mass incarceration crisis has been destroying our communities for decades, but the pandemic made its depravity and senselessness impossible to ignore. We are faced with an opportunity and a mandate: We must apply the same urgency to ending our mass incarceration crisis that we applied to keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe during the last year.

For example, prior to the pandemic, the OC planned a huge expansion of almost 900 new jail beds to the James A. Musick jail near Irvine. As infection rates increased in the jails amid the pandemic, county supervisors approved the expansion contract without discussion in May 2020. For almost two years, the Musick jail has sat empty, wasting taxpayer dollars despite historic low bookings and daily population.

Thanks to community pressure led by impacted families and the Stop the Musick Coalition, a year after county supervisors approved the contract, the Irvine City Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the expansion of the jail.

We must continue to work in solidarity with incarcerated people and community groups to defeat the planned expansion of the Musick jail. This is our opportunity to invest in community care and reshape our collective approach to justice. We need you.

Learn more: Tune-in to the Stop the Musick Coalition’s workshops on gender and racial disparities in OC jails and the harms of jail expansion.