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Criminal Justice

Nearly 40% Of LASD Jail Buses Are Out Of Service, And Some Incarcerated People Are Missing Court Dates

A bus labeled County of Los Angeles Sheriff's Department passes under a gate at the entrance to the multi-story Twin Towers jail, a beige and white building with all of the windows covered.
Nearly three dozen of the L.A. Sheriff's Department buses that provide transportation to and from local courthouses are in the repair shop.
(David McNew
Getty Images)
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With nearly three dozen Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department court transportation buses out of service, some incarcerated people are missing important court dates or forced to stay in county jails longer, according to a court employee and multiple public defenders in courtrooms across the county.

The Sheriff’s Department confirmed Thursday that 32 out of a total of 82 buses that transport incarcerated people to and from L.A. County courthouses were in the repair shop “for various reason[s].” That means nearly 40% of the fleet was unusable.

LAist spoke or texted with five public defenders and a court employee for this story who spoke to us on the condition they not be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly. They say the transportation shortage has wreaked havoc on courtroom schedules.

The court employee told us that one judge had to order a special extraction order to ensure that one woman made it to court after days of transportation issues.

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'Never Seen It So Bad'

“I have never seen it so bad,” the employee said, adding that they’d worked in the court system for decades. “Every day, you’re having multiple people missing.”

The Sheriff’s Department has a roughly $22 million contract with Centerra Integrated Services, LLC, for maintenance services.

A mechanic at a downtown L.A. Centerra garage ticked down the list of out-of-service jail transportation buses over the phone with me on Thursday. In total, he said there were 26 buses in his garage, and three more at different vendors — more than double what he usually sees.

The mechanic said a garage near Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic usually helps service LASD buses, but some employees there have been sidelined by COVID-19.

L.A. Superior Court referred questions about the lack of bus transportation to the Sheriff’s Department. The department acknowledged recent "bus availability challenges," but said in a statement that lack of transportation is "very rarely" the reason defendants miss a court date. It said it is unaware of anyone who has missed a court date solely due to the recent bus shortage.

The department said part of the transportation problem stems from aging buses and the fact that it has not bought new buses in five years. It blamed “unfunded or underfunded” needs in the department; however, its overall budget has increased year over year.

The department said Court Services Division staff recently completed a “bus replacement assessment” and the findings and recommendations will be presented to the department’s Administrative Services Division “in the coming days.” The department said it also plans to meet with its contractor “to determine if we can be more efficient and timelier in returning buses to service.”

“I have never seen it so bad. Everyday, you're having multiple people missing."
— A veteran court employee in the Los Angeles County Superior Court system

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Uptick In 'Miss-Outs'

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sheriff’s Department sends out a daily list to court staff of “miss-outs,” the term for incarcerated people who can’t make their court date because they are in quarantine, have a medical issue, or any other reason.

Public defenders and court staff said there’s been a big uptick in recent weeks in the number of people who aren’t making their court dates.

LAist reviewed a list of “miss-outs” sent out to courts on Wednesday. The list indicates that over 100 people refused to come out of their cell that day. Roughly 50 names of incarcerated people simply said “miss-outs,” with no information given on why they couldn’t appear in court.

Another roughly 10 names said “MSSOUT – NO SPACE,” and 20 names said “pending wheelchair transportation.”

Multiple attorneys said clients with health challenges appear to be the most adversely affected by the transportation setbacks, as some of them require special transportation.

“I think almost every one of my clients who were not transported, or had a delay in their transportation in the last two weeks, had mental illness or some physical disability,” said a public defender working in the criminal courts building downtown.

“There’s just no accountability or transparency or any way to check when someone is reportedly a refusal, or miss-out,” said another public defender and union member who worried about whether transportation issues were being glossed over in the “miss-out” reports.

“I haven’t had a single custody client brought to court this week,” they said.

An incarcerated man wearing a blue jail uniform is seated, back to the camera, beside a woman wearing a light green blazer in a courthouse.
An incarcerated man (right) watches a video in court about a housing program through the L.A. County Office of Diversion and Reentry.
(Emily Elena Dugdale

A 'Human Rights' Issue

Part of the problem may stem from a cultural shift during the pandemic about the importance of timely court appearances, according to attorneys in the courts.

“When COVID hit, all of a sudden, it became very common to be waiting for your client to be brought to court for sometimes weeks at a time,” the public defender said. “And the alarm that courts used to feel, and the sense of urgency, really dissipated.”

The public defender in the criminal courts building said they are working with a pregnant incarcerated woman who missed multiple court dates because of COVID-19 quarantine and other unknown reasons.

“I haven’t had a single custody client brought to court this week."
— A public defender union member representing people incarcerated in L.A. County jails.

But after that expired, the woman wasn’t brought to court for two more days because of a lack of bus transportation.

“She’s a young woman on a misdemeanor charge, now held for 10 days in custody because of this transportation issue,” the public defender said, adding that delays in transportation affected at least five other women in one arraignment court.

“Honestly, I was crying in custody the other day because I think it’s a human rights issue,” the public defender said.

This story was updated to include the statement from the Sheriff's Department.

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.

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