East Baton Rouge Parish courts are suspending all routine proceedings through March 27 and all jury trials through April 17 in an effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, which has already infected dozens of people across the state.
The suspensions apply to the civil, criminal and traffic court hearings in the 19th Judicial District, court officials announced in a press release late Friday afternoon.
Meanwhile, the parish public defender's office is conducting a massive review of all their clients who are currently jailed pretrial, planning to request release for anyone being held on minor and nonviolent charges. Attorneys will file bond reduction requests for most other defendants, Deputy District Defender Lindsay Blouin said.
"Come Monday morning, we are going to be pushing as hard as we can to get as many people out of jail as possible," she said. "Our judges and prosecutors seem to understand that we have a lot of people in jail who don't really need to be there, and that being in jail could be extremely dangerous right now."
Advocates and experts across the criminal justice system have been warning about the dangers of coronavirus once it enters jails and prisons, which house a notoriously unhealthy population in close quarters and with limited access to sanitation measures.
Close quarters, preexisting health conditions and limited access to soap and hand sanitizer make Louisiana's prisons and jails potential breed…
Parish public defenders are also planning to request bond relief for jail inmates who are elderly or have preexisting health conditions.
Officials said there is limited capacity for video conferencing between the jail and courthouse that will allow inmates to appear before a judge if needed — for example because of "speedy trial" rights and other constitutional requirements.
The courthouse itself will remain open, including the clerk's office.
Attorneys will still be able to meet with clients inside the jail during the suspension, but will have to give advance notice and undergo a medical screening beforehand, Blouin said.
The 19th JDC decision came several hours after the Louisiana Supreme Court advised Friday morning that all lower courts in the state should restrict dockets to emergency and time-sensitive hearings and delay all civil and criminal cases "if possible."
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson said in a letter that courts "must handle this public health crisis in a way that protects the health and safety of everyone at our court facilities."
19th JDC officials said they'll reevaluate how to proceed after March 27 in the coming weeks.
The East Baton Rouge District Attorney's Office also announced the postponement of its "Traffic Court Saturday" event for people who can't make it to traffic court during the week. District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he had expected hundreds of people to attend. He said the public would be informed once the event has been rescheduled.
Parole hearings postponed
The state Department of Corrections also announced Friday afternoon that all pardon and parole hearings, which are held at DOC headquarters in Baton Rouge, are suspended for the next 30 days. That came after the department decided to suspend all prison visits and tours for a month.
It also came after the Louisiana branch of the American Civil Liberties Union released a statement Thursday demanding expedited parole hearings for elderly state prison inmates to reduce the risks of them contracting the coronavirus behind bars.
Francis Abbott, executive director of the state Board of Pardons and Parole, said there's a series of laws that the board must follow that determine when and how a hearing is conducted. Those include notification requirements for victims and their families, the board's independent investigation process and public meetings laws. He said the board is looking into using technology to potentially conduct hearings remotely if impacts of the coronavirus persist.
"We want to make sure the process is fair for all parties involved," he said. "It's a true balancing act because we serve the victims, the public and also the offender population."
All parole hearings that have been docketed will be rescheduled, unless an inmate's release date comes up in the meantime, DOC officials said. All pardon hearings will be rescheduled, and inmates who have already been granted release at an earlier board hearing will still be able to leave DOC custody as planned.
Other local courts follow suit
The East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Court also suspended proceedings beginning Monday, March 16 through March 27. However, proceedings for juveniles who have been arrested and are being held at the Juvenile Detention Center and proceedings for those children who have been removed from their homes by the Department of Children and Family Services will remain as scheduled.
Dana Carter, judicial administrator, said in an email the courthouse and docketing department will remain open during this time and that employees will continue to report to work as usual.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana also postponed their civil and criminal trials until May. Grand jury proceedings were postponed indefinitely and initial criminal appearances will be conducted by video conference before Magistrate Judges. Arraignments, detention hearings and the issuance of search warrants will continue to take place as usual or by video conference.
Other notices include rejecting in-person filings through April 13 unless ordered and encouraging people to use online court resources.
Staff writer Jacqueline DeRobertis contributed to this article.