By Elizabeth Marcellino, City News Service

LOS ANGELES (CNS) – From March to mid-June, as stay-at-home orders took effect and Los Angeles County officials moved to release jail inmates to prevent the spread of coronavirus, jail bookings dropped by more than half, according to a report available today on the county’s website.

However, the numbers of people behind bars may be creeping up again, although the report cautioned that it is too soon to draw reliable conclusions about the reason for the higher numbers.

County officials, criminal justice advocates, and Sheriff Alex Villanueva have all focused on a drop in the jail population of roughly 5,000 people due to efforts to reduce the number of inmates living in overcrowded facilities with little opportunity for social distancing.

Fewer arrests helped keep that number in check, according to a report submitted to the Board of Supervisors from a group of county departments tasked with determining how to maintain a lower jail population after the COVID-19 emergency ends.

Between March 1 and June 10, there were 13,244 bookings into Los Angeles County jails, compared with 29,863 during the same period in 2019. The numbers steadily decreased month-by-month during the period, across all law enforcement agencies that book into the county jails.

The sheriff’s department reported that deputies relied more heavily on mental health teams and had less contact with homeless individuals during this time frame. The Los Angeles Police Department said it issued more warnings and citations in lieu of arrests and relied more heavily on specialized mental health and domestic violence teams to handle situations in the field.

Counts conducted in June and July indicate that the jail population may be increasing again. Daily point-in-time counts can also be misleading given a population constantly in flux.

“Point-in-time counts for the jail population on 6/11/2020 (11,964) and 7/8/2020 (12,309) suggest the reductions in jail population may either be flattening or diminishing,” according to the report sent to the board by Department of Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly.

“Although it requires more analysis, recent data suggests that bookings have increased as a result of courts reopening, and individuals being remanded to custody pretrial.”

An emergency zero bail schedule for low-level, non-violent offenders was implemented as part of the state’s emergency orders related to the coronavirus. The state Judicial Council ended the program June 20, but a similar zero bail schedule imposed by the Los Angeles County Superior Court remains in effect locally until further notice.

The working group report repeated findings from a county study on Alternatives to Incarceration completed in February to underscore longstanding racial inequities in the justice system that have fueled demands for change.

“Incarceration in LA County is a story of racial inequality. The county’s justice system consistently and disproportionately impacts people of color, a trend consistent across the nation,” the ATI report stated.

“Of the county’s 10 million residents, 74% of people arrested are Black and Latinx. Jail admissions of Black people are the most staggering. While only 9% of LA county residents are Black, Black people make up 29% of the jail population.”

The first lists of inmates who could be released quickly in response to the pandemic — drawn up by the courts, prosecutors, public defenders and the sheriff’s department — had disproportionately fewer Black inmates listed as compared with white and Latino inmates.

The first releases happened so quickly that Department of Health Services personnel were not looped in, and many inmates were released without referrals to support services like temporary housing or substance abuse treatment, according to the analysis. Concerns about COVID-19 also led community providers to restrict services.

Support is particularly important for inmates suffering from mental illnesses. According to the ATI report, which was issued pre-COVID-19, nearly 30% of the jail population suffered from a serious mental disorder and roughly 60% of the inmates released daily had a “significant” substance abuse problem.

About half of all the women jailed in Los Angeles County were considered to be part of the mental health population, a higher rate than that for men.

The more recent report references preliminary analysis suggesting that the number of people in mental health housing did not decline at the rates seen across the entire jail population. However, the percentage of those jailed with mental health issues seems to have declined overall based on the point-in-time June 11 count.

An appendix to the report shows that roughly 25% of inmates counted on that day were considered part of the mental health population. It was not immediately clear whether the other analysis applied to inmates in high observation mental health housing.

Other studies show that those with mental health issues are much more likely to be jailed on a misdemeanor charge.

The 77-page working group report includes dozens of recommendations to counteract racial and other biases in the system, build out community services to support inmates upon release from jail, and change multiple protocols followed by various law enforcement agencies, including the courts.

The proposals include creating a group to monitor the jail population and inmate releases, as well as courts and policing processes that affect those numbers.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors voted to produce quarterly data on pretrial releases broken down by race, gender, age and charges and to track outcomes related to those releases. It also agreed to create a system to track and publish anonymized, detailed data on the jail population, probationers, cases filed for prosecution, Immigration and Customs Services detainers, use-of-force and diversions on a monthly basis, moving to weekly reporting over time.

The next meeting at which the board could consider the most recent report is set for Sept. 1.