by Derek Gilna
The Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association was forced to backtrack from an April 19, 2018, statement that Louisiana jails hold about 1,300 individuals in jail over four years without standing trial and 70 for more than five years.
One week later the association stated that the figure is only 85 for more than four years. Apparently, the association revised the figure after contacting Louisiana jails, perhaps after the original figure became public.
In a state known in criminal justice circles as one in dire need of serious reform of both its jails and courtrooms, this strange reduction in prisoner counts is yet another example of the need for change. Apparently, the state of Louisiana does not collect data on how long its prisoners have languished in its correctional institutions without getting their day in court.
According to Michael Ranatza, executive director of the association: “I think the number is actually higher.” Ranatza made those remarks on April 9, at a Louisiana House Appropriations budget hearing, complaining that sheriffs needed more funding because of the high prisoner counts in county jails.
Ranatza went on to say at the same hearing that, “I want you to understand that there are people in the state of Louisiana who have waited over five years to be tried in criminal court.” He added, “There’s a higher number at the four-year level, about ... 1,200.”
According to Ranatza, holding pre-trial detainees for such long periods of time without trial costs an enormous amount of money and poses other problems for jails. He noted that individuals who have not been convicted of any crime should not be housed with those who have been convicted and sentenced. “It’s a classification nightmare for us,” he stated. “It’s better for us for the individual to move through the system.”
Bruce Hamilton, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, complained that there were often long delays in getting people a trial: “This is a huge problem in Louisiana, and it is a problem nationally.” He added that if the original number was accurate, that it was a gross violation of a defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights.
State Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, characterized the holding of people for over a year before getting in front of a judge as “unconscionable.”
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