Reformers of all political stripes, and public officials at many levels of government, want to achieve an idealistic goal of reducing prison populations, saving money for the taxpayer and at the same time ensuring that the really bad actors in society are locked up.
It’s not going to be that easy.
The long delays in the criminal justice system aren’t the fault of any individual official or actor in the system, but it’s a system, and a delay in any part of it can do more than just gum up the works. A mistake takes up space in a jail, as law enforcement drops the ball on an investigation, or paperwork simply piles up beyond the capacity of prosecutors and public defenders to process the cases, or an inmate simply gets lost in the shuffle.
The Advocate reported Monday on numerous cases of inmates of East Baton Rouge’s parish prison who languished for months without formal criminal charges.
One writer of a bad check was in jail for five months before being let go — and that’s far beyond the time limits set in state law for prosecutors to decide whether to charge an inmate with a crime. It’s also quite a penalty for a man who, never brought to trial and convicted, was technically innocent of any crime.
A review of recent 19th Judicial District Court cases by The Advocate found 19 inmates arrested since January 2013 who sat in jail for as long as six months until they were charged or released without charges, much longer than the 45-day or 60-day time limits for almost all crimes.
The defendants usually were kept waiting even after they filed court motions from the jail in an effort to speed up the outcomes of their cases. These lapses in prompt charging appear rare, but the delays left defendants in legal limbo — and taking up space in the prison.
A public defender called the situation cases of injustice, and he is right, even if these cases are a relative handful out of 20,000 arrests in a year.
The issues in this particular problem ought to be addressed by judges and prosecutors. In New Orleans, this problem is rare, as judges require a “show cause” hearing to see whether prosecutors have cause for the detention of the accused. Or if the accused is still going to be accused in a court of law at all.
We see the larger warning in these cases for reformers, conservatives and liberals who want to make the system work better.
It’s difficult to talk about alternatives to imprisonment and other good ideas without facing the complexities of the other parts of the criminal justice system — from effective policing on the street to efficient assessment of cases by prosecutors and ultimately judges and juries.