east baton rouge parish prison stock

Pictured is a holding cell at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison used during the intake process at the facility.

Baton Rouge's criminal court system will change how it keeps people behind bars before trial after a federal judge approved a settlement in a class action lawsuit Wednesday.

The lawsuit, filed in December 2020, claimed hundreds of poor people languish in pretrial detention in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison because they cannot afford to pay the bail that has been set as the condition for their release.

"Today has been a good day for justice in this city," Chief Judge Shelly Dick said as she approved the settlement.

The four plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, backed by several national civil rights groups, said three 19th JDC judges rarely, if ever, considered a detainee's ability to pay when they set their conditions of release during rushed, 30-60 second court appearances. 

According to the settlement terms, judges will now consider a detainee's financial situation when setting bond. And they will explain on the record why the conditions were set. It will apply to all judges in the 19th JDC.

"I think it’s really important for the system as a whole to have that kind of transparency," said Eric Foley, a lawyer for the plaintiffs with the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center. "If you’re going to detain someone, they should know why."

The courts will also be required to obtain financial information to determine if a detainee needs a public defender and grant their attorneys access to the information used to set bond.

Those who are not released must have a hearing within 48 hours of their arrest, where a judge or commissioner will ensure they are represented by a lawyer, the settlement says. At that hearing, attorneys can argue whether the conditions for release should change.

Baton Rouge has often kept detainees before trial longer than most places. 

The Advocate reported in 2019 that, on average, detainees at the parish jail who have yet to be convicted of a crime are held for about two months, approximately 55 days. That was one reason the parish incarcerated people at a significantly higher rate than that of New Orleans and Lafayette. 

For years, an assortment of players in the parish's criminal justice system have worked to expedite the stay for detainees awaiting trial, to varying degrees of success.

The public defender's office implemented a bail team back in 2019 to target high-need clients for a quicker release coupled with a comprehensive treatment plan. But the same year, a faster, 72-hour arraignment process for newly arrested detainees was rolled back after three months  when judges protested the move caused "mass chaos."  

Instead, alleviating lengthy pretrial detention stays has often fallen to nonprofits or local community groups that raise money to bring small groups of people home to their families on certain holidays. All the while, community members have called loudly for parish officials to be held accountable for the number of people who have died in the parish prison, which has a death rate significantly higher than the national average.

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Now, local advocates hope the terms of this settlement will create a fairer and more methodical approach that takes into account whether a detainee can afford the bond set. 

What may seem to be simple administrative changes could actually be "life-saving" for incarcerated people, according to Ashley White, who works for the Bail Project. 

"My heart is a little lighter," she said in court Wednesday. "I can breathe a little easier." 

Plaintiffs and community members spoke earnestly in favor of the settlement, recounting their own experiences with the parish jail and the bond conditions that impacted their lives. 

At the time of his arrest, Joshua Ryan, one of the plaintiffs, was homeless and unemployed. He said the judge who set his $10,000 bond didn't have paperwork for his criminal history and did not inquire about his financial situation. A public defender representing Ryan didn't speak up on his behalf throughout the entire proceeding, he said. 

After two months in pretrial detention, he was released. Ryan now has a job and a better life, he said. He believes the terms of the settlement will help judges get a clearer picture of each defendant's specific situation. 

When Blaze Franklin, another plaintiff, was arrested in October 2020, he told authorities he had Stage IV prostate cancer. He was still slapped with a $200,000 bond, which he had "no way or means" to pay, he said.

While incarcerated, Franklin made continuous requests to see a doctor and was granted only two virtual visits, he said. Initially, he was given two Tylenol per day for pain management. By the time he left the facility in early January, he had lost 40 pounds. 

"The pain and suffering was unnecessary," he said Wednesday. 

For Linda Franks, the mother of 27-year-old Lamar Johnson, who died after four days in the jail in 2015, the day's ruling was poignant. 

"This is what happens when the community and legal system come together and sit down and talk about things that affect people's everyday lives," she said. 

Toward the end of the hearing, after Judge Dick had approved the settlement, Franks reached for the woman sitting next to her whose son has been in the jail for years. Silently, still seated, the two embraced. 

Email Jacqueline DeRobertis at jderobertis@theadvocate.com