Lawsuit: Ascension Parish Court bail system discriminates against the poor, who may languish in jail for days or weeks _lowres

Rebecca Marie Snow

Defendants arrested in Ascension Parish on any misdemeanor offense would no longer be held in jail on bail they cannot afford, under a proposed settlement parish authorities and civil rights attorneys reached to end a federal class-action lawsuit.

The proposed settlement would essentially reverse the Ascension Parish Court’s bail schedule for minor crimes that often meant poor defendants wound up stuck in Ascension Parish Prison until they could find a judge to reconsider their case.

The settlement filed Wednesday afternoon by attorneys for Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley, Parish Court Judge Marilyn Lambert and plaintiff Rebecca M. Snow, 33, of Gonzales, means most misdemeanor defendants would be released on their own recognizance without having to secure a bond to pay bail.

Snow was arrested Aug. 24 on counts of misdemeanor theft and remaining in a place after being forbidden. Gonzales police caught Snow shoplifting that day at a Wal-Mart where she was previously caught doing the same thing. She had been banned from the store.

Snow, a mother of two, had been held in jail in lieu of $579 bail, unable to leave due to her poverty, her suit alleges.

The suit claims that when Snow tried during a video conference to have her bail reconsidered, she was told the judicial officer speaking to her then could not do that. The suit also claims deputies could not tell her when she would see the judge who could reconsider her bail.

Attorneys with the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans and other groups who had already been investigating Ascension’s bail practices filed the suit a day after Snow was arrested.

Her attorneys claimed Ascension’s bail system deprived Snow and hundreds of other poor misdemeanor defendants of their civil rights by leaving them no options for release if they can’t afford bail, while allowing others facing minor counts but with the means to afford bail the opportunity to leave jail promptly.

The suit focused on the alleged regimented application of Ascension’s generic “bail schedule” without regard to the facts of individual cases. The schedule systematically sets out bail amounts for traffic and other minor offenses, ranging from $112 to $1,169.50 per count.

Lambert and Wiley were named as defendants.

Wiley operates the jail, which is near Donaldsonville, while Lambert oversees Ascension Parish Court in Gonzales, a small-claims, misdemeanor, traffic and juvenile court created by the Legislature in 1976 only for Ascension and its municipalities.

U.S. District Judge Shelly D. Dick ordered Snow released Aug. 27 and ruled Snow was likely to win her case as attorneys told the judge then they were planning settlement talks. Dick had not ruled on the joint settlement by 7 p.m. Wednesday, but a hearing set for 9:30 a.m. Thursday where the plaintiffs would have sought to halt the bail practices has been canceled.

Sheriff Wiley, who said Wednesday night he had not seen the final version of the proposed settlement, declined to comment on the proposal directly, with a ruling still pending, but also defended his and Lambert’s past procedures.

“I’m just telling you from the sheriff’s standpoint, we are under an obligation to follow the law and follow the judge’s parameters on bail. The judge followed Louisiana law to the letter, and we followed her bond schedule straight up,” Wiley said.

Katie Schwartzmann, co-director of the New Orleans office of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, declined comment Wednesday with the judge’s ruling pending.

The assistant state attorney general who represented Lambert referred all inquiries to the Attorney General’s communications office, which could not be reached late Wednesday. Lambert declined comment on the matter previously.

While the settlement proposes a sweeping change for many indigent defendants in Ascension, the proposed settlement also sets aside 11 categories of charges for which Lambert would be allowed to make case-by-case decisions about whether defendants can be released on their own recognizance or face bail.

Those charges include aggravated assault, battery on a police officer, disturbing the peace by fighting or other means of violence, second offense petty theft, violation of protective orders and resisting an officer.

The Sheriff’s Office must call the judge to consider those cases after booking for a defendant is finished.

If Lambert orders defendants facing any of those counts to be held in jail until bail can be set at a hearing, the hearing must be held the next business day and defendants still can’t be held on bail they can’t afford.

In addition to the 11 categories to be set aside for case-by-case review, the proposed settlement also says Lambert retains discretion to operate pre-trial detention for defendants facing the misdemeanor offense of domestic abuse battery.

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