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Common area in lockup at EBR Parish Prison in this 2016 file photograph.

Louisiana prisoner rights advocates sent a letter to the governor Wednesday expressing alarm at recent decisions to suspend some due process rights, including speedy trial requirements, as various components of the state's criminal justice system are grinding to a halt amid the continued rapid spread of the novel coronavirus.

The Louisiana branch of the American Civil Liberties Union drafted the letter, which argues the changes pose a serious threat to fundamental civil rights, for example allowing prosecutors to sidestep deadlines limiting the length of time between when people are arrested and when formal charges are filed against them.

"We understand the need to protect the public from this unprecedented pandemic, but these curbs on due process would leave thousands of presumably innocent Louisianans to languish in legal limbo while doing nothing to advance public health," said Alanah Odoms Hebert, the organization's executive director. "Far from stemming the spread of this virus, these moves will result in more people confined in squalid conditions where they are at substantially greater risk of infection."

Protecting inmates and guards in Louisiana's jails and prisons has been a major topic of discussion among law enforcement leaders, prison officials and criminal justice advocates who all agree that close quarters and a high rate of underlying medical conditions among prisoners could exacerbate the impacts of the outbreak. Still, not much has been done to significantly reduce the number of people behind bars in Louisiana, which remains the nation's top incarcerator.

Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a proclamation Monday introducing a series of changes, including limiting gatherings to 50 people or less, closing some businesses, limiting restaurants to takeout or delivery orders and suspending deadlines for court proceedings through April 13. That decision came after the state Supreme Court advised Friday morning that all lower courts should restrict dockets to emergency and time-sensitive hearings and delay all civil and criminal cases if possible. 

Edwards' office said Wednesday the changes were "part of social distancing efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, especially as different courts and public offices have closed." 

"We are aware of the ACLU's concerns and we are doing everything possible to address all of the issues that are presented by this emergency," said Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for the governor's office.

Under Louisiana law, prosecutors normally have between 45 and 60 days to make a charging decision in most cases where the defendant is incarcerated before the trial. Those deadlines don't apply to the most serious felonies, which require a grand jury indictment and allow up to 120 days. Advocates argue Louisiana's deadlines are longer than those in many other states, meaning the process is already unusually slow even before the suspension was announced.

District attorneys said Monday they were requesting the suspension because it would be almost impossible to adhere to those deadlines and abide by the Supreme Court's recommendations meant to prevent groups of people from congregating in courtrooms. State and federal courts across Louisiana, including in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, have suspended jury trials and other proceedings for the time being.

Loren Lampert, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said the changes are necessary to protect the integrity of cases being prosecuted across the state. 

"Absent this measure, even the worst violent offenders could have been released without any bail obligations or conditions," he said in an email Wednesday. "We are committed to working to safeguard the rights of all during this time. Public safety and protecting the rights of the accused are not mutually exclusive."

The last time state officials suspended legal deadlines was after Hurricane Katrina — a decision that "resulted in widespread unconstitutional confinement as people were literally lost in the system," in some cases detained for several months while waiting for prosecutors to decide whether to pursue the case at all, advocates wrote in the letter. "Now, as close person to person contact is fueling the spread of COVID-19, we cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past and hold thousands of people in jail for unnecessarily long periods of time."

Advocates are asking prosecutors to do whatever possible to continue meeting the deadlines despite the suspension.

"As the state of Louisiana takes drastic and necessary measures to protect against the threat of COVID-19, we urge the executive and judicial branches to speak with one voice to protect one of our most fundamental civil liberties — the right not to be detained in jail without criminal charge," they wrote.

The ACLU letter came just days after a series of similar demands from the Southern Poverty Law Center and other advocacy groups aimed at reducing the state's prison population and treating inmates as humanely as possible. The groups called on Edwards to sign the clemency applications now sitting on his desk — including almost 200 requests for sentence commutations that have already received positive recommendations from the state's pardon board, the vast majority from aging lifers who have already served decades behind bars. 


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.