Louisiana jails defendants awaiting trial — those who have not been convicted, and sometimes aren't even charged with a crime — at the highest rate in the nation.
It's a problem that disproportionately impacts poor black residents, according to a new report released Friday from the Louisiana branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. The report says those most severely impacted often can't afford to post bail, leaving them no choice but to languish behind bars pending a resolution in their case no matter how minor or insubstantial the allegations against them might be.
Advocates argue the discrepancy is unacceptable, amounting to racial injustice that "shocks the conscience."
The state's pretrial incarceration rate has increased 10 percent since 2015 and is now more than three times the national average, according to the ACLU report, which is based on two years of research into Louisiana's jail populations.
People who are arrested in East Baton Rouge Parish, but can't afford their bail, typically spend more than a month sitting behind bars before …
That's on top of the people incarcerated in Louisiana state prisons who have been convicted and sentenced. Other statistics show Louisiana houses more of such inmates per capita than anywhere else in the world despite recent efforts from legislators to soften sentencing laws and extend parole opportunities for some prisoners.
"These findings are a wakeup call that even as Louisiana has worked to reduce its prison population, a devastating epidemic of pretrial incarceration has risen up in its wake," said Alanah Odoms Hebert, ACLU of Louisiana executive director. "Pretrial incarceration destroys lives, wastes taxpayer money, weakens public safety and betrays the fundamental principle that people are innocent until proven guilty. This is unacceptable — and our elected officials have a responsibility to fix it now."
Researchers found that almost 60 percent of people being held in local jails had been arrested on nonviolent offenses — most commonly drug possession. On average, they're incarcerated for almost six months before their cases are resolved.
Most are poor and black. Many remain incarcerated simply because they can't afford to post bail, which advocates argue is often set at exorbitant amounts. The median bail for people jailed pretrial is $24,000 in Louisiana — where the median annual income is about $27,000, according to the report. Keeping those people behind bars costs the state an estimated $290 million per year.
"Because decisions to jail or release people in Louisiana are mostly based on how much money they have, not whether they pose any danger, pretrial incarceration has no rational connection to public safety," researchers wrote. "In a state where one in five people live below the poverty line, being jailed for being poor is an especially cruel punishment."
Black people are twice as likely as white people to be jailed pretrial, and that disparity increases dramatically for young men of both races, according to the report.
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In some cases, a person is arrested but never charged because prosecutors decide there isn't enough evidence to move forward. People who can't afford bail are stuck behind bars pending that decision, which in Louisiana can take weeks or months. State law allows prosecutors between 45 and 60 days to file formal charges against more defendants.
If charges are filed and the case proceeds, people jailed pretrial are more likely to accept a plea deal because they want to resolve the charges as quickly as possible to expedite their release. That could lead to more serious convictions than would be achieved at trial, according to the report.
"Even a few days in jail can cause someone to be fired from a job, be evicted from their home and even lose custody of their children," said Chris Kaiser, advocacy director for the ACLU of Louisiana. "Fortunately, we know that it doesn't have to be this way. State and local officials can act right now to reverse Louisiana's pretrial incarceration epidemic."
Advocates are calling for an overhaul of the state's bail system to focus more on public safety concerns than monetary amounts. They're also proposing new state laws to reduce the amount of time between when someone is arrested and charged.
That includes arraignments — hearings when prosecutors present their charging decision to a defendant — within 72 hours of an arrest. East Baton Rouge Parish implemented that change late last year in an effort spearheaded by the parish district attorney's office, but 19th Judicial District judges soon voted to walk back the policy, leaving it up to prosecutors instead of imposing a blanket rule. The judges said it was creating chaos in their courtrooms because of the burden of holding additional hearings.
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State Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat, has filed several bills for consideration in the current legislative session that would address recommendations in the report, including one that would require the state to file charges in misdemeanor and most felony cases within five days, or release a person from jail.
Another proposal would address recordkeeping issues that make it difficult to even determine the extent of pretrial detention in Louisiana. That one would require parish jails to collect standard data on their pretrial jail populations and submit quarterly reports.
"It's unacceptable that Louisiana locks its people up without trial or conviction more than any other state, and mostly for nonviolent offenses," said state Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat. "State and local officials need to act right now to start building a system based on safety and fairness, not how much money a person has."