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DOJ Finds Louisiana ‘Deliberately Indifferent’ to Prisoners Incarcerated Long Past Their Release Dates

by Matt Clarke

On January 25, 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a report finding the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPSC) was deliberately indifferent to the due-process rights of state prisoners who were held long past their release dates. DOJ also found that DPSC has been aware of this problem for more than a decade yet refused to take effective steps to ensure the timely release of its prisoners.

The report noted that between January and April 2022, 1,108 (26.8%) of the 4,135 prisoners DPSC released were held past their release dates. The median over-detention was 29 days, but 31% were over-detained at least 60 days and 24% at least 90 days.

Although Louisiana does not compensate over-detained prisoners, it does have to pay to keep them incarcerated – at least $2.5 million a year, DOJ estimated. That is because DPSC uses 104 local parish jails to incarcerate about half of its 26,000 prisoners, as well as privately operated lockups where it contracts for bed space. All prisoners held at jails, however, remain in custody of DPSC, which is responsible for their timely release.

It is this extensive use of local jails, along with an antiquated system of calculating sentences and delivering the results to the parish jails, which is largely responsible for the delayed releases. According to the report, DPSC’s Pre-classification Department is responsible for collecting, maintaining and managing prisoners’ sentencing information and related records. The Department also calculates release dates and is responsible for the timely processing of DPSC prisoners from incarceration.

That process starts when the Clerk of the Court sends sentencing information to the sheriff of the parish where the prisoner is incarcerated. The sheriff puts the sentencing information and other documents into a “preclass packet” that is forwarded to the Pre-classification Department, which then uses the information to calculate a release date. If a person is eligible for immediate release, the Department contacts various local officials to check for detainers and unresolved charges, as well as confirming that the prisoner’s DNA is on file and any necessary victim notification has been completed. Then it issues a release certificate and forwards it to the appropriate local official. Only upon receipt of the certificate is the prisoner finally released.

However, there is no standardized method of forwarding information at any step of this process. More than five years ago, DPSC declined an offer from a clerk’s association to email sentencing information directly. DPSC recently began allowing sheriffs to email sentencing information, but few do so. Mostly, the information is hand-delivered or mailed.

These cumbersome and nonuniform procedures resulted in an average over-detention of 44 days in 2019 for about 200 of the 1,000 or more prisoners the state releases each month. Further, according to the report, DPSC has known about the problem since a 2012 Sigma Six report it commissioned revealed these severe, systemic delays. How severe? On average every year covered in that report, 2,252 prisoners were each over-detained for 72 days.

Though that means the situation has improved slightly in the past 11 years, it remains a big problem, as legislative audits in 2017 and 2019 also found. Armed with evidence that DPSC knew about the problem for so long and left it uncorrected, DOJ said the agency had been deliberately indifferent to violations of prisoners’ due-process rights. See: Investigation of the La. Dep’t of Pub. Safety & Corr., U.S.D.O.J.O.I.G. (2023).

Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that Jessie Crittindon and four other state prisoners who had been incarcerated long beyond the end of their sentences could sue DPSC for violating their constitutional rights. That case has now returned to federal court for the Middle District of Louisiana, and PLN is tracking developments. [PLN, Mar. 2023, p. 30].

Additional source: New York Times