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Louisiana Department of Corrections secretary James LeBlanc

The Louisiana Department of Corrections has known for years that its flawed process for calculating prisoners' release dates often leads to people being incarcerated for longer than they should. But new court filings released Thursday show the department's knowledge of the problem extends back farther than previously revealed — to 2012.

The implications are staggering, according to civil rights attorneys. They've estimated Louisiana inmates have been held past their release dates for a collective total of more than 3,000 years since then, costing the state millions in wasted taxpayer dollars.

DOC leaders have acknowledged the significance of the problem but argue it can't be solved overnight, in part because there are several moving parts that factor into when an inmate is released, including good time credits that get people earlier parole eligibility when they complete rehabilitation programs. 

The process also involves an antiquated system for transferring paperwork from one agency to another, often requiring records to be physically driven across the state and hand delivered. That often delays DOC's receipt of necessary documentation from a district clerk of court or parish sheriff's office, department officials have said. Changes to the state's sentencing laws further complicate things for the DOC employees charged with processing an estimated 60,000 time computations processed each calendar year. 

"The Department of Corrections has known about this problem for eight years and failed to take the steps to fix it. Even worse, they have refused to accept help when offered," said New Orleans attorney William Most, who represents several clients with pending lawsuits against DOC and local law enforcement agencies, alleging illegal release delays. "We have not found any other city, county or state that has anything close to the magnitude of Louisiana's overdetention problem."

DOC spokesman Ken Pastorick said Thursday that the department can't comment on pending litigation, but the allegations against DOC Secretary James LeBlanc "are completely without merit." 

One of Most's clients is Rodney Grant, who had been released in 2016 after serving seven years for simple burglary and unauthorized entry of an inhabited dwelling. When he then went to get a driver's license, the license application flagged an old warrant alleging he'd committed another burglary almost two decades earlier, and Grant was arrested again. He quickly pleaded guilty and a judge sentenced him to one year with credit for the seven years he'd just served, meaning he should have been released immediately.

Instead, Grant was incarcerated for 27 days and shipped hundreds of miles to three prison facilities across the state before his paperwork had been processed, allowing him to finally regain his freedom and start rebuilding his life.

Most filed a motion for summary judgement in Grant's case on Thursday alleging a "pattern and practice of unlawful overdetention" that has continued unabated even after DOC leaders in 2012 completed an internal investigation which revealed thousands of inmates were being overdetained each year — on average more than two months each. The motion is largely based on the May 2019 deposition of LeBlanc, the DOC secretary, in which he acknowledges that delayed and inaccurate sentence computations were a "big problem" for the department. The deposition was also filed into the court record this week.

The case is ongoing in federal court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Most's recent court filings come after two separate audit reports that both found issues with how DOC staff is calculating release dates, including inconsistent policies and a lack of supervisor review that resulted in fairly frequent data errors. 

LeBlanc explained in his deposition that his staff completed what's called a "Lean Six Sigma" review of its inmate time calculation process in 2012. The review found that the department was overdetaining 2,252 inmates per year for on average 72 extra days each. Those numbers did improve in subsequent years after DOC took steps to improve the process, attorneys note in the motion. But issues have persisted, as pointed out in the audit reports.

LeBlanc likened the process to "herding cats," referring to local agencies having their own record-keeping systems and varying levels of automation. He also noted that increased programming for state prisoners — particularly the large number being housed in local jails across Louisiana — has complicated the calculation process because they have more opportunities to earn "good time" credits and get released earlier. 

LeBlanc has long advocated for additional reentry programs to better prepare inmates for life on the outside and continues to push for more. But the reality is they're an added complication for the department's sentence computation staff, he said. Staffing issues throughout the department and limited resources haven't helped. 

"It's not that we're ignoring the problem," LeBlanc said during the deposition. "We're fighting every avenue … to fix this, and we just run into walls."

The department has applied for a $1.2 million federal grant to assist in developing a web portal that would allow for electronic paperwork submission, which officials have said would help ease the process. Pastorick said DOC also has implemented a second review of initial sentence computations and requested the state legislature establish a committee to work toward improving the process.

In a December 2019 meeting of that committee, LeBlanc admitted to legislators that the current system is not ideal. He said the DOC is currently co-defendant in approximately 10 pending cases where a plaintiff alleges he was held beyond his proper release date.

"Changes are clearly required, and we can all agree that no person should be held beyond his or her proper release date," LeBlanc said. 

Bureaucratic and technical delays often create a backlog of paperwork, he explained. DOC cannot legally release an inmate before receiving all the necessary documents.

"Please don't lose focus on the fact that the Louisiana prison system is unique," LeBlanc said. "We house offenders in local jails at a much higher rate than any other state. This means we are more dependent on local partners to provide us the information."

Louisiana also imprisons people at the highest rate in the nation, and has for many years. The state briefly ceded that undesirable title to Oklahoma in 2018 but has once again risen to the top, according to recent data from both states' corrections departments. Prisoner advocates argue that releasing inmates on time is the least state leaders can do if they're committed to reducing Louisiana's vast prison population. 

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.