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Presumed Guilty: The Pretrial Incarceration Crisis in Los Angeles County

During the month of October 2023, UCLA Law students partnered with La Defensa to watch 3 LA County courthouses. This report reflects court watchers’ observations, and a look behind the curtain at what’s happening in our civil courts. It reveals alarming data points, judicial bias, and heartbreaking anecdotes about the atmosphere in the courtrooms observed. It also tells a bleak story of how the affordable bail decision mandated by the CA Supreme Court is not being upheld by most judges.

What is

Our community organizing model, CourtWatch LA, promotes accountability and transparency in the judicial system. We train and empower CourtWatchers to observe judicial behavior in courtrooms by collecting data and reporting their findings to the public. Additionally, CourtWatch LA seeks to raise awareness about the criminalization of poverty and homelessness — including fines, fees, and predatory bail-setting practices. 
CourtWatch LA’s mission is to illuminate the disparate treatment and punishment of groups such as Black, Indigenous, and Latine communities, women, LGBTQIA+ people, and other marginalized Angelenos
We also cast light on the influence of law enforcement and prosecutors, and hold them accountable for promoting mass incarceration and criminalization. 

Our community organizing model supports organizing efforts inside and outside the courtroom to limit the reach of the criminal legal system and dismantle the carceral state.

"Judges have the power to uproot people's lives. If we don't have the tools to hold them accountable, then what will happen?"

– Gabriela Vázquez
La Defensa Deputy Director 

Wanna be a CourtWatcher?

Courtwatch LA Expectations for Courtwatchers

Participate in a Court Watch LA training.

Sign up to observe courtroom sessions at specified locations and times.

Complete court watch intake forms during courtroom sessions.

Submit court watch forms and data within 48 hours.

Show up on time and plan to observe for roughly 3 hours per shift.

Uphold La Defensa’s abolitionist, intersectional, and gender justice values in all public interactions, including social media presence.

"Court watching is an amazingly elegant solution to a lot of ills."

-Fiona Apple, Court Watcher

CourtWatch LA News