Commentary

Dying in jail is bad; dying without being found guilty is worse | Jarvis DeBerry

14% of incarcerated people who died in Louisiana hadn’t even been tried

June 4, 2021 10:38 am

According to “Louisiana Deaths Behind Bars,” a new report created by Loyola New Orleans College of Law Professor Andrea Armstrong, more than 14 percent of the 786 people who are known to have died behind bars in Louisiana between 2015 and 2019 hadn’t even gone to trial yet. (Darrin Klimek/Getty Images)

More than 14% of the 786 people who are known to have died behind bars in Louisiana between 2015 and 2019 hadn’t even gone to trial yet. Two of those who died before getting their day in court were juveniles. 

To be sure, that doesn’t mean that most of the other deaths aren’t alarming; only a fraction of people behind bars have been sentenced to die in prison. But just about every American can quote a bedrock of American jurisprudence — “presumed innocent until proved guilty” — so it’s especially distressing to encounter the figures in the new report “Louisiana Deaths Behind Bars” that some people who were merely suspected of crimes never went home again.

The report by Andrea Armstrong, a professor at Loyola New Orleans College of Law, notes that of the 49 people who died by suicide during the five-year period covered in her report, one of them not only died before trial but died while being held in solitary confinement.

As Armstrong said in a Tuesday interview, people held in solitary confinement are supposed to be under extra observation. “How are people completing this process of suicide if they’re supposed to be checked every 15 minutes for visual observation?” she said.

But the problem in the state’s prisons and jails isn’t limited to suicides and won’t be solved even if all suicides were eliminated. “Our state and federal government are constitutionally obligated to provide safe and humane conditions for incarcerated people, including constitutionally adequate health care,” Armstrong writes in her report. “These obligations arise from the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Article I (Sections) 2 and 20 of the Louisiana State Constitution.”

In five years, 786 people died in Louisiana’s jails and prisons, a new report finds

Our state isn’t meeting its obligation — in large part because our jails, in addition to housing pre-trial detainees, are also being used to house people who have been convicted of crimes and are serving out their sentences.  Those parish-run jails don’t have the same medical facilities, medical equipment or medical personnel on hand but they’re being used to incarcerate people who likely are expected to be locked up for years.

Forcing the state’s sheriffs to acknowledge their constitutional obligations to keep the people they’re incarcerating safe is one way to address the problem. Another way is to reduce the number of people who are in jail or reduce the amount of time they’re there.

This legislative session, Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) filed HB46, a bill that sought to lower to as few as five days the length of time a person in Louisiana could be held in jail without being formally charged with a crime. 

James sought to cut in half (from 60 days to 30)  the amount of time a murder suspect could be held in jail without charge and give prosecutors five days to charge everybody else booked on suspicion of a felony or misdemeanor. 

Prosecutors currently have 45 days to file misdemeanor charges and 60 days to file charges for most felonies. The law allows another month before the locked up person has to be arraigned. The ACLU of Louisiana, in a 2020 report, cited those lax deadlines as a reason that pre-trial detainees in Louisiana jails languished there an average of 5 ½ months before being tried or convicted. The 5-day and 30-day deadlines the ACLU recommended are the deadlines James proposed in his legislation.

But after going through the legislative process, James’ bill would now only reduce the length of time people suspected of misdemeanors could be held and only reduce that from 45 days to 30.

Nobody with means would be in jail for 45 days or even 30 days awaiting disposition of a misdemeanor. Laws allowing people to be held so long really only impact poor people who can’t pay their way out. Because there’s a regrettable correlation between health and wealth, these are likely the same people who aren’t in the best of health to begin with before they’re locked up in jails where officials are either ill-equipped or unwilling to address their medical needs.

In making the case for his bill in an April 22 hearing of the Louisiana House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee, James said, “A lot of people never have charges filed at all, and they end up being released after weeks of unnecessary jail time.”

Most who are never charged are released, but not all of them. Over a 5-year period, at least 113 people who were presumed innocent died in a Louisiana jail.

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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, former editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later NOLA.com) as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.

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