Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Needed: A tech upgrade and an end to overdetention in the Louisiana Department of Corrections


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Needed: A tech upgrade and an end to overdetention in the Louisiana Department of Corrections

  • Chicago cop’s sentence for killing a Black teenager is exceptionally short

  • San Francisco DA will move to expunge over 9,000 marijuana convictions

  • Visions for legal change from lawyers and advocates who have been incarcerated

  • A candidate for prosecutor in Northern Virginia wants to dismantle the ‘mass incarceration machine’

In the Spotlight

Needed: A tech upgrade and an end to overdetention in the Louisiana Department of Corrections

For years now, Louisiana officials have known that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people serving sentences in jails and prisons are held past their release dates. A 2017 audit showed that people were detained weeks, months, or even years past when they should have been free. And courts have been clear that it is unlawful. Yet it continues to happen. Last week, NOLA.com reported that: “Every week over the last decade, prison staff found at least one person who had been kept in jail or prison longer than their sentence required, court records show.” [Richard A. Webster and Emily Lane / NOLA.com and the Times-Picayune]

In September 2018, Victoria Law wrote for The Appeal about the problem of “overdetention” in Lousiana. When release dates were postponed, the careful preparations some people made for returning home were for naught. In one case, 50-year-old Ellis Ray Hicks had been in close contact with his aunt leading up to his release date. She was in her late 60s and needed to have open-heart surgery but had to have a caregiver home with her for her recovery. Since her husband had cancer, she scheduled the surgery for after Hicks’s release. When she visited four days before his schedule release to ask what time she should be there to pick him up, they learned that his release date had been changed, from January to July. No one could explain why. Hicks’s multiple queries led to multiple new release dates, none of them the original one. He was eventually released four months after originally scheduled. [Victoria Law / The Appeal]

Nothing seems to have changed since September. NOLA.com’s reporting last week looked closely at multiple examples of people detained beyond their sentence. In some cases, people sentenced essentially to time served, who should have been released the day they were sentenced, were instead forced to wait in jail or prison for weeks as agencies processed their paperwork. Johnny Traweek, for instance, became a victim of the lag in communication between the Orleans Parish sheriff’s office and the state’s Department of Corrections. Traweek pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary, after seven months in jail pretrial, expecting to go home that day. Instead he sat in jail for weeks while the sheriff’s office got the paperwork to state corrections. [Richard A. Webster and Emily Lane / NOLA.com and the Times-Picayune]

When his lawyer, Stan Moroz of Orleans Public Defenders, asked why he was still in custody, a sheriff’s office employee responded: “He can’t get released until DOC sends him a release. The whole process takes about 2 weeks. He has to wait!!!!” The reason for the lengthy “process”? As the Times-Picayune editorial board highlighted, “the sheriff’s office drives inmates’ paperwork to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel once a week. Let that sink in for a minute. They DRIVE the paperwork to St. Gabriel instead of emailing or faxing it.” [Richard A. Webster and Emily Lane / NOLA.com and the Times-Picayune]

The problem is so bad that Moroz keeps track of how many Orleans Public Defenders clients are detained, or likely to be detained, past their release date. Last year, between January and November, public defenders identified 46 clients who may have been incarcerated longer than they should have been under their sentences.  [Richard A. Webster and Emily Lane / NOLA.com and the Times-Picayune]

Yesterday, the Times-Picayune editorial board pinned the blame squarely on the state Department of Corrections and the Orleans Parish sheriff’s office.  The Department of Corrections’ response to criticisms about how slow it is in releasing people was: It’s hard to do math.” Sentencing calculation can be complicated, but the state corrections department is completely unequipped for the task. In the case of Kenneth Owens, sentenced to 21 years in 1989, instead of earning 30 days toward his release for every 30 days served as required, the department instead calculated that he earned only 15 days for every 30, a mistake that meant he spent three extra years in prison. The corrections department settled his lawsuit in 2016 for $300,000. [Richard A. Webster and Emily Lane / NOLA.com and the Times-Picayune] Corrections representatives blamed Louisiana’s 2017 justice reforms for many of the errors, pointing to the difficulty of calculating earned time credits. But, as the editorial board pointed out, “this is their job.”  Times-Picayune Editorial Board]

In most cases, the errors only come to light when people notice errors and can raise questions about them. As Law noted, “There’s no system in place, either on the local or state levels, for incarcerated people themselves to fix these errors—or to get in touch with someone who can help. … those who have intellectual disabilities, mental health concerns, or cannot write a letter are left to sit behind bars…” Civil rights attorney William Most, who represents five people who allege that they were detained beyond their sentences, estimates that there are thousands of people in Louisiana in prison beyond their release dates. The impact is devastating for the unlawfully imprisoned individuals and their families, who remain in limbo. It makes meaningful rehabilitation and preparation for re-entry impossible. And it costs the state millions to incarcerate people who should not be in prison and then pay settlements. [Victoria Law / The Appeal]

Just as the problem is obvious, there are obvious solutions. One is to upgrade the corrections department’s data system, CAJUN, which dates back to the ’80s. An earlier effort fell apart, after the department spent $3.6 million on it. Another is to hire trained, competent staff to perform the reams of sentence calculations for which the corrections department is responsible. And finally, the Orleans Parish sheriff’s office can move into the 21st century and, as other sheriff’s offices do, send sentencing records to the state corrections department electronically, rather than on a weekly drive.  [Times-Picayune Editorial Board]

Stories From The Appeal

 

Demonstrators protested along Michigan Avenue in Chicago last year as they celebrated the verdict in the murder trial of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014. [Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images]

Chicago Cop’s Sentence for Killing a Black Teenager Is Exceptionally Short. Jason Van Dyke’s sentence for the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald is approximately half the average sentence for a person convicted of second-degree murder in Cook County, Illinois. [Rob Arthur]

Stories From Around the Country

San Francisco DA will move to expunge over 9,000 marijuana convictions: The office of the San Francisco district attorney, through a partnership with Code for America, has identified 9,362 marijuana-related convictions that are eligible for expungement or resentencing under Proposition 64, the marijuana legalization measure passed by voters in 2016. Now the DA’s office will move for those thousands of convictions, dating back to 1975, to be expunged. It will make San Francisco the first city in California to clear all the convictions eligible under Prop. 64. Until now, only 23 people had petitioned for expungement or reclassification. District Attorney George Gascón said the same approach, of relief “en masse,” could be used for other convictions, such as those applicable for expungement or reclassification under the recently passed Proposition 47, which reduced many drug offenses and theft cases from felonies to misdemeanors. [Evan Sernoffsky / San Francisco Chronicle] See also The Rhode Island attorney general has introduced legislation that would reclassify simply drug possession for personal use as a misdemeanor rather than a felony, as is the case in twenty other states. Rhode Island and New Hampshire are the only New England states in which simple drug possession is a felony offense.

Visions for legal change from lawyers and advocates who have been incarcerated: The Yale Law Journal features a collection of essays by four thinkers—Reginald Dwayne Betts, Tarra Simmons, Andrea James, and Shon Hopwood—who have experienced incarceration and the barriers that follow. The editors note, “People who have experienced incarceration have unique insights into the criminal system—insights that are often missing from legal scholarship and criminal justice policy. This Collection begins to bridge that gap.” Betts considers the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence regarding the punishment of youth and its limitations. The real question, that these cases fail to fully answer, Betts argues, “is what break do kids deserve?” Simmons proposes “granting conditional approval for the bar prior to law school admission” to encourage aspiring lawyers with criminal records to make the “massive investment” of time and resources required for law school without fear of automatic rejection when they seek to be admitted to the bar.  James explores the question of “whether incarceration generally—and incarceration of women and girls specifically—is a fundamentally misguided response to violence and poverty that we must retire.” And Hopwood looks at how “almost miraculously” Congress passed the First Step Act in December, the involvement of criminal justice advocates, and why, despite criticisms about its scope and impact, he considers it “an unanticipated breakthrough.” [Yale Law Journal]

A candidate for prosecutor in Northern Virginia wants to dismantle the ‘mass incarceration machine’: Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, legal director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, is running for prosecutor of Arlington County and Falls Church City on a platform of “dismantling the mass incarceration machine.” The Appeal: Political Report interviewed Dehghani-Tafti on why she believes that the position of prosecutor is the right place from which to reform the criminal justice system. She pointed to the role that many current Virginia prosecutors and their statewide association (the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys) play in stymieing reform in the state. “This is a shell game of prosecutors saying, ‘we have no discretion, we just follow the law,’ and then turning around and making sure that none of their tools are taken away from them,” she said. She also detailed her positions on the death penalty (she commits to not seeking as prosecutor), drug policy (she specified that she would not prosecute simple marijuana possession cases and would look to increase diversion programs in other cases), cash bail (she supports ending its use for low-level charges), voting rights (she supports ending felony disenfranchisement), and other issues. She faces Theo Stamos, the incumbent commonwealth’s attorney, in the June 11 Democratic primary. [Daniel Nichanian / The Appeal: Political Report

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at tips@theappeal.org. A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.