Task force would aim to study, then solve jailing of people in La. past release dates
The statewide problem stems in part from a complex and sometimes faulty process used to calculate release dates
Emily Lane and Richard A. Webster
NOLA Media Group, New Orleans
BATON ROUGE, La. — A new state task force would look for ways to fix processing and efficiency problems that have caused Louisiana jails and prisons to keep some people in custody long past their release dates, under a resolution introduced to the Louisiana Legislature on Monday (May 20).
The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Katrina Jackson of Monroe and backed by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, comes after the Edwards administration acknowledged the issues in March. The statewide problem stems in part from a complex and sometimes faulty process used to calculate release dates on DOC’s end, and from lapses or inefficiencies in the way local sheriffs, courts and clerks of court share information with DOC after someone is sentenced.
The legislation matters, said Jackson, a Republican, because, “It’s human decency, that after someone has served their time – if it was you, me or anyone else – we would want to be released. They served their time and they deserve (release). It’s as simple as that.”
House Concurrent Study Resolution 1 seeks input and recommendations from the governor’s office, DOC and six other groups who have a hand in the sentencing and releasing of incarcerated people.
The task force proposal comes about two months after a NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune report showed that Louisiana routinely keeps people locked up for weeks, months, and even years, after they are supposed to be released. Civil rights lawyers representing people who claimed they were detained too long have filed multiple lawsuits against Corrections or the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. Attorneys and a legislative auditor’s report have said state officials have known of this problem for years but, despite several efforts, have failed to correct it.
“We know that there is an issue here and we want to solve it,” Louisiana Department of Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick said in March, after the NOLA.com | the Times-Picayune report published.
Pastorick added Tuesday that DOC has sought in recent years to improve the time calculation and release process, but that it relies on coordination from multiple local agencies. DOC embraces the opportunity to bring the relevant groups together to examine the problem and “find solutions to make it more effective and efficient,” he said.
The systematic problem requires more urgent attention than what a study resolution can provide, said William Most, one of the lawyers who claims in lawsuits his clients were detained too long.
“It is now time for decisive action, not a polite request to form a committee,” Most said.
Federal courts have ruled that prison officials “must ensure an inmate’s timely release from prison” once the sentence has expired. That “timely release” has been defined by the courts as fewer than 48 hours.
DOC said in late March the agency had recently reviewed 200 cases in which inmates were eligible for an immediate release and found they had to wait an average 49 days past their official release date to actually be released.
The extra expense of keeping these people incarcerated costs the state $2.8 million a year, according to prison officials. Those numbers come from a grant proposal DOC submitted in January to the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, seeking money to improve its case processing and data analysis systems.
Cases in which people should be quickly released often involve defendants who plead guilty and are then sentenced to the same amount of time, or less, than they have already spent in jail pretrial. Those were the circumstances for Rodney Hulbert.
Hulbert was out on bond when he pleaded guilty last year in Orleans Criminal District Court to a gun charge and resisting an officer. He had already served more than 70 days in jail before bonding out, and he thought it best to take a plea deal and move on, said Hulbert, 47.
When Judge Benedict Willard sentenced him on May 1, 2018, to serve 30 days on both counts, with credit for time already served, Hulbert expected to walk out of the courtroom with the case behind him. The sentences could be served at the same time, the judge said, and he’d already served more than twice that amount.
Instead, Hulbert was taken directly from court to jail, in the custody of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. He had to wait in jail until DOC calculated how much time he had already served before releasing him, he said he was told.
For more than a week, Hulbert slept in an open housing unit with about 80 other men. He was released on May 10, his 47th birthday, according to an Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office spokesman.
“Nine and a half days is a lot of time to be away,” Hulbert said in an interview with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.
In those nine days, Hulbert said, he missed a meeting with a nightclub manager to discuss a job hosting a comedy open mic night – a gig Hulbert hoped could open up opportunity in the New Orleans comedy scene. He never reconnected with the club, he said, and assumed the management wasn’t interested in someone who missed an appointment because he was locked up.
He also missed a visit with his then-7-year-old son, Hulbert said.
If the purpose of the justice system is to punish and rehabilitate someone, Hulbert said, it makes little sense to prevent someone from reentering society by locking them up after they have already served their time.
Task force to address ‘broken system’
The groups the resolution indicates should participate in the task force include DOC, the Louisiana Clerks of Court Association, the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, the office of the governor, the Louisiana Supreme Court, the Louisiana District Judges Association, the Louisiana District Attorneys Association and the Louisiana Public Defender Board.
“There is not a sheriff who wants to hold a prisoner past his release date,” Mike Ranatza, the executive director the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, said last month.
Emily Washington, a lawyer with the Roderick Solange MacArthur Justice Center whose firm has also sued the state and local sheriffs over the issue, said the legislation “affirms the right of convicted persons to the accurate calculation of their sentences and to a timely release.”
The resolution says criminal justice reforms enacted in recent years are “largely dependent upon having accurate and complete information” about those in custody.
Jackson said the governor’s office remains committed to implementing reforms that result in fewer people being incarcerated, not just signing reform bills into law. The task force legislation is part of that follow-through, she said.
Washington said she hopes the task force can push DOC and sheriff’s offices to fix “a broken system” that has led to people being jailed past their sentences.
“For far too long, jailers have abandoned their basic constitutional duty to promptly release those who have served their time,” Washington said. “It’s disheartening that the pleas of my clients and their families were not enough to compel reform but we hope that this legislative request will be taken more seriously.”
The legislation would require the task force to report its finding to lawmakers before the 2020 legislative session starts in March.
©2019 NOLA Media Group, New Orleans