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June 9, 2021

Cutback in Jail Population Showed that Costly Planned Expansion Should be Stopped  

SANTA ANA — Today marks the end of a landmark lawsuit that saved innumerable lives by forcing Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes to drastically reduce the population of people held in the county jail system under horrific conditions during the spread of COVID-19.

Before the suit was filed in state court in June 2020 by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, and Munger, Tolles & Olsen LLP, seeking release of people incarcerated in the Orange County Jails, the number of people held in the massive jail system was approximately 5,000. But upon finding that conditions in the jails during the failed response to the pandemic violated both the California Constitution and the state disability discrimination law, the Orange County Superior Court in December ordered Barnes to reduce the population by 50 percent in all congregate living areas.

During the pandemic the number of people incarcerated in the jail system was as low as 2,776 — a historic 10 year low. 

Yet, despite fear-mongering statements by Barnes and other law enforcement officials that the court-ordered releases would result in a wave of lawlessness, that simply didn’t happen. 

Indeed, as the reduction order comes to an end because of the 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 poor people.    

“As the state case comes to a close, we are proud and thankful for the changes that have resulted from it,” said Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “The court order saved lives and affirmed that people in jails matter, and was one of the strongest in the nation against a jail, prison, or immigration detention center during the pandemic. It’s worth recognizing as a bright spot in a very dark year.

“But we know our work in Orange County isn’t done. The ACLU will continue to fight in and out of court with our community partners to improve conditions and keep jail populations low so that people inside the county jails and out can live safely, healthily, and with dignity.”

One of the most prominent local efforts to curb incarceration is the Stop the Musick campaign by the ACLU and community partners to halt the huge planned expansion of the James A. Musick jail in Irvine, California.

“As this COVID-focused lawsuit draws to a close, we must continue to work in solidarity with incarcerated people,” said Jacob Reisberg, a jails conditions advocate at ACLU SoCal. “This is why it is so important that we defeat the planned expansion to the Musick jail, which would add almost 900 new jail beds to the county’s jail capacity. The expansion will cost hundreds of millions of dollars that should instead be spent on housing, community mental health care, and jobs,”

Sarah Kahn, a member of the Transforming Justice Orange County group and the Stop the Musick coalition, added, “The drastic drop in the jail population may have saved thousands of lives, not only those who were released, but their families, loved ones, and neighbors who could have been exposed to COVID-19 without the safety measures made possible by releases. 

“TJOC and our coalition partners in Stop the Musick hope that our community continues to listen to incarcerated organizers, and advocates on the outside, who are fighting to prevent the county from refilling and expanding our jails,”

The December 2020 court decision ordering the reduction in Orange County jails is at:

June 9, 2021 order dismissing lawsuit is at: