Civil rights groups say far too many people are being held in Louisiana jails for lengthy stints before trial — but they don’t know how many.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, the inmate rights’ group Voice of the Experienced and the re-entry group Operation Restoration asked sheriffs in all 64 parishes on Monday for information on how long their detainees have been held in custody awaiting trial.
The public-records requests came in response to a recent statement by the head of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association that 1,300 people have been held for more than four years without a trial — a number he later dramatically downgraded to 85.
Sheriffs' Association Executive Director Michael Ranatza said he made a mistake with his original numbers, which he was using to try to drum up more budget support for sheriffs from the Legislature.
Out of the roughly 20,000 inmates awaiting trial in Louisiana, 2,181 have been waiting for more than a year, according to the updated numbers from the Sheriffs’ Association.
The civil liberties groups said that whatever the true numbers are, even the lower figures highlight a crisis for inmates denied their constitutional right to a speedy trial.
“Although the newest numbers are different, they’re equally as alarming and outrageous and egregious as what was originally reported,” said Dasheika Ruffin, Southern regional director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.
The Sheriffs' Assocation figures include numbers from the 62 parishes that responded to an informal survey, but the group has not provided a parish-by-parish breakdown. It's also unclear which two of the state's 64 parishes are missing.
“The Sheriffs’ Association has failed to provide the public with the information we deserve," Ruffin said.
The records requests seek information on how many inmates are being held in each parish's jail and for how long. The groups say they also will investigate the race of inmates and the reason for delays.
In Orleans Parish, 24 inmates have been held for more than four years since their booking into the jail, according to a roster of inmates obtained last week. All 24 are African-American.
New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams, who is also a practicing defense attorney, appeared at a news conference to announce the public-records requests. He and other speakers blamed prosecutors for many of the delays.
“Forcing men, women, young people to languish in a jail pretrial, it’s a moral crisis, it’s a fiscal crisis, and frankly, it’s un-American,” Williams said. “You are paying for innocent people to sit in jail because a prosecutor has not brought a case.”
However, defense attorneys also frequently seek continuances ahead of trials, as Ruffin acknowledged.
E. Pete Adams, the executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said he would wait for more data before commenting.
“That’s pretty interesting. They don’t have the information, but they already have the blame assigned,” Adams said of the civil liberties groups.