News Release

COVID-19 and California’s Carceral System: NACDL Sues California Governor and Attorney General in California Supreme Court

NACDL Seeks Immediate and Significant Reduction of County Jail and Juvenile Facility Populations Across the State 

Washington, DC (April 27, 2020)  – The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), joined by California Attorneys for Criminal Justice (CACJ) and the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC), represented by the ACLU Foundation, the ACLU Foundations of Southern California, Northern California, and San Diego & Imperial Counties, and the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, filed suit in the California Supreme Court late Friday.

In this action, NACDL and the other Petitioners seek an immediate and significant reduction of county jail and juvenile facility populations throughout the State of California. The conditions in these facilities constitute violations of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment as well as violations of individuals’ Due Process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, in addition to violations of the California Constitution and other state and federal laws.

"Californians cannot spare a day, or even an hour, to take the actions sought in this Petition," said NACDL Vice President Martín Sabelli. "We know that this deadly plague is thriving under the conditions in California's adult and juvenile detention facilities and the State must act now to save the lives entrusted to it. Protecting lives is a constitutional, moral, and humanitarian duty. As lawyers constitutionally obligated to advocate for our clients in a courtroom when their freedom is a stake, we have no less a duty to advocate for them when their lives are at stake. We are all in this together."

"While social distancing and hygiene are the central public health guidance that can help contain the spread of COVID-19, abiding them is simply impossible for the many thousands of people being held in California’s juvenile detention facilities or being held in California’s county jails," explained NACDL President Nina J. Ginsberg. "Faced with these indisputable facts, urgent action is required, right now. Lives are at stake – lives of the incarcerated, lives among the staff, and lives in the communities outside these facilities. Furthermore, many of the individuals in California’s county jails are in serious danger of contracting this disease simply because they cannot afford bail. Given the existing disparities in California’s criminal justice system, the failure to dramatically reduce the populations in these detention facilities is only further exacerbating the absolutely alarming disparate impact that COVID-19 is having on poor communities and communities of color. And that cannot stand."

"It is not just those confined to jails, detention centers, and youth facilities who are in danger,” said Peter J. Eliasberg, chief counsel of the ACLU SoCal. “Once the virus gets inside, the regular movement of staff and visitors in and out means that walls and razor wire can neither slow nor stop the viral spread to communities at large."

The lawsuit filed late Friday  in the California Supreme Court is available here.


Ivan Dominguez, NACDL Senior Director of Public Affairs and Communications, (202) 465-7662 or

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.

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